Scott Cooper’s Black Mass is the story of crime lord James “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp) told from the eyes of his criminal underlings as they speak out against him to the FBI.
Bulger, after serving a nine-year stint in Alcatraz prison, straddles together a working crime business in southern Boston in the 1970s. FBI agent and childhood friend of Bulger John Connelly (Joel Edgerton) approaches Bulger with an offer to provide federal protection for Bulger and his associates in return for information about other criminal organizations in Boston. What follow is an almost decade-long manipulation of federal powers that allows Bulger’s criminal workings to go unpunished.
Black Mass tries to have the unbridled grit of such gangster favorites as Goodfellas, but it comes off a bit too polished. Brief glimpses of violence are sensational and, at times, gripping, but overall there is something distinctly refined about how the beats fall. It is almost like the violent thrashings out are more of a customary nod to the genre than a narrative necessity. That, or they are there for the sake of showing off Depp’s menace.
Speaking of Depp, he brings in his best performance since Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. His role may be the standard genre stylization of a mob boss: he is quiet and calculated with every word that drops coldly from his lips, but he reserves a temper that only surfaces when it is most appropriate for his business. Still, Depp disappears behind dead blue eyes and gives a powerfully disturbing performance.
If the film’s depiction of Bulger borders on the cliche, the ancillary characters are far beyond that line. The movie is over-saturated with supporting characters, leaving many talented actors with little time to actually showcase their talents.
This is probably most egregious in the characters of Bulger’s wife Lindsey (Dakota Johnson), his lowest-tier grunt (Jesse Plemons), and federal prosecutor Fred Wyshak (Corey Stoll). Johnson appears in one or two scenes, and her final scene is a quiet implosion of a conversation between her character and Bulger. An up and coming actress only now gaining prominence through her role in Fifty Shades of Grey, Johnson could have used more screen time to show that she has acting chops when she is cast in a movie that is, well, better than Fifty Shades of Grey.
Plemons is the face that the movie opens on. We are introduced to Bulger through his eyes as the creepy crime boss takes him under his wing. After this initiation, however, Plemons’ characters fades literally into the background. For the remainder of the movie, he is either speaking in voiceover or hanging in the back of the scene, where he is only given the occasional reaction shot.
Stoll’s character is introduced in the final third of the film. Given Stoll’s acting abilities, you would think that he would be utilized in a larger role. Instead, he is given only two scenes to work with.
These three aren’t the only ones who are shirked of much warranted screen time. Peter Sarsgaard, Juno Temple, and Julianne Nicholson only get a few scenes to exercise their acting abilities.
This stacked cast of characters acts to make the film seem jumbled. Characters slip into the narrative and then are stripped out without warning and sometimes without explanation. The only central piece is Depp, who mesmerizes with every scene, almost making the mess of the story a forgettable afterthought.
Black Mass is well shot. Calculated shot scales frame tense moments. Shot-reverse shot takes pull in tighter to the faces as conversations escalate to their boiling point. Sometimes the camera hangs on reaction shots a bit too long, taking the viewer out of the narrative. But, overall, the cinematography is well worth noting.
Black Mass will likely prove to garner some early award season buzz for Depp. His performance makes the movie, given the rest of the cast are pulled into the background, and it is electrifying. But, I think Depp’s performance might end up on the chopping block for an Oscar nod, given that most of his visual menace is a makeup artist’s handiwork.
As always, thanks for reading!
Black Mass is currently available to stream on Amazon Video here.
Have you seen Black Mass? If so, what did you think? Let me know in the comments!
–Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)