There’s so much potential and talent on display in Black Mass that you almost can’t believe how workmanlike the end result turns out to be. Everyone involved turns in competent work, but no one manages to stand out, and that goes for everyone, up and down the line. From director Scott Cooper to star Johnny Depp and the big supporting cast that is headlined by Joel Edgerton, it’s all efficiently enough done, but without much in the way of heart or soul. Essentially, while it’s interesting enough and well made, there’s really no “there” there. This material has been mined before, so it seems like the cast and crew are just going through the motions in making a biopic of gangster Whitey Bulger. Even something like Martin Scorsese‘s The Departed covered this story already, so making this bit of history a two hour plus tale really stretches things. Getting to see Depp try harder than usual is a nice change of pace, but honestly…I can’t go wild over this performance. I’ll even say something pretty bold and likely controversial: I preferred his supporting turn in Tusk last year. This is solid acting in Black Mass, but he made an effort in Kevin Smith‘s horror comedy too and seemed to have fun in the process. There’s no fun to be had here by Depp, only a strong desire to compete for an Academy Award once again. Black Mass might yet appeal to Oscar (though I have some doubts about that), but it didn’t really appeal to me.
For decades, James “Whitey” Bulger (Depp) ruled Boston as a crime lord with his Winter Hill Gang. This is the story of how that came to be. Initially a small time thug, Bulger was able to grow his empire and basically become untouchable through an alliance with the FBI. An agent named John Connolly (Edgerton) grew up in South Boston with Whitey and his now State Senator brother Billy Bulger (Benedict Cumberbatch), so he presents the idea to his boss Charles McGuire (Kevin Bacon) of using the Whitey to take down the Italian mafia in North Boston. McGuire is skeptical, but eventually relents and Connolly, along with John Morris (David Harbour) begins working with Bulger, presumably in a mutually advantageous situation. Thing is, Whitey gets to do as he pleases and the government isn’t getting much in return. Connolly protects his asset though, as much for his job as out of a sense of hometown pride, which puts a strain on his marriage to Marianne (Julianne Nicholson). From there, it’s just waiting for history to be acted out. It holds your interest for the most part, but you just wish there was more to this story than what you’re shown.
Johnny Depp is the central reason this exists, essentially in the hopes of getting him another Academy Award nomination. Again, he’s solid here, even very solid, but the makeup is doing half the performance for him. Depp is intense, but there’s nothing here to go gaga over. Joel Edgerton fares better than him, but like the entire cast, they both struggle with Boston accents. Edgerton at least gets a real character arc to play with. He’s been better, but he’s still rather good here. They’re the only two that really make an impact, though Corey Stoll is underused in a part that could have been a real dynamite one. He’s third in line for best in show, but basically by proxy. The aforementioned Kevin Bacon and Benedict Cumberbatch are essentially cameoing, while David Harbour and Julianne Nicholson are forgettable. The rest of the ensemble is the same way, with W. Earl Brown, Bill Camp, Rory Cochrane, Dakota Johnson, Jesse Plemons, Peter Sarsgaard, Adam Scott, Juno Temple, and many more doing their jobs fine, but without anything to get excited over. That’s pretty much the case all around.
Scott Cooper is a director that rarely inspires much in the way of hearty praise, while at the same time rarely invoking scorn. That’s the case again here, as his direction is thoroughly competent but in no way worthy of much heavy thought. The same goes for the script by Jez Butterworth and Mark Mallouk, who chronicle Bulger with gusto but never transfer that enthusiasm to the audience. Butterworth and Mallouk don’t give Bulger much depth, even when they show you his family and home life. It winds up just being a wash, as it slows down the up until then solid pace of the flick. The score by Tom Holkenborg and the visuals from cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi are fine, with the latter achieving a gritty look that works for the film, but they’re also unlikely to get many pumping their fists. I suppose if you love gangster flicks, this will scratch an itch, but I wanted more. The hair and makeup job on Depp is probably worthy of a nomination, but nothing else here really is.
In the end, Black Mass functions as an acceptable enough drama about a famous gangster, but in no way is it a particular high point for the crime genre. It goes through the motions, and while it does it with more than a modicum of competency, you never feel fully engaged by the story. I didn’t have a bad time with the film, but it was pretty instantaneously forgettable. Time will tell if the Academy feels differently, but I have my doubts that Oscar voters will go for this in any notable way. If you’re a fan of Depp, there’s probably more than enough here for you, but keep your expectations on the lower side. Black Mass is fine, but fine isn’t enough for me.
–Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!