As the summer comes to a slowdown, it’s time again for the onslaught of potential awards season contenders. We’ve already had a few come out, but more will reach theaters as fall comes in. One such contender is the highly-anticipated, Black Mass, the Scott Cooper directed and Jez Butterworth and Mark Mallouk penned crime drama based on the book of the same name by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill. Black Mass follows the rise and fall of the nightmarish Boston gangster, James “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp). It chronicles his alliance with an old friend, and now FBI Agent, John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) that led to his reign as a crime boss.
There are two things at stake with Black Mass. One is the the comeback for Johnny Depp, who has reached near self-parody with his career as of late. The other is the question of whether Scott Cooper could direct a film that’s more than just fine after two mediocre efforts. As someone who has read the book the film was based on, I was hoping for the best. Unfortunately, the resulting film is a big disappointment.
Often some of the least interesting films tend to be ones that are simply surface-level imitations of other filmmakers’ works. Black Mass, in many ways, is an generic imitation of Scorsese, and like most Scorsese imitations, it has the polish, but none of the substance. It is a very well-made film. It’s wonderfully shot, it has the necessary grit, and it has a good sense of time and place with all its period details. However, a lackluster screenplay and unenthusiastic direction takes a potentially great story and tells it in the most boring, bland way possible.
The root of it all is a script that resorts to the worst way of doing a historical-based story – which is the Wikipedia-summary-esque “and then” storytelling method, all while providing no insight, perspective or point-of-view of it’s own. It uses various devices to try and offer a fully realized account of Whitey Bulger’s reign, but none of it adds up to anything substantial or meaningful. One thing the film tries to do is cutting in FBI interviews with Bulger’s associates. These scenes are there as if the film is meant to be about the “legend of Whitey Bulger,” so to speak. It would be a way to cover the era by seeing Bulger exclusively from other people’s’ perspectives and less from the man’s own POV.The film doesn’t commit to this though, as it continues to have scenes of Whitey in his personal life. These moments seem to be there to humanize Bulger, but to what end – I’m not sure.
This leads me to Whitey Bulger himself, and Johnny Depp’s portrayal. The best way I can describe his performance is that it’s a good performance, but for the wrong kind of movie. The film wants to show that, while he’s a terrible and ruthless person, he is still a person. Johnny Depp’s Whitey Bulger feels like it’s right out of the exploitation/Italian knock-off version of Black Mass, especially when compared to the fairly realistic and understated performances from everyone else. That’s not to say Johnny Depp wasn’t a blast to watch, in fact, watching him murder people for two hours was probably the only entertaining thing about the film. Well, that and seeing Peter Sarsgaard as a cokehead, and the occasional scene of Joel Edgerton acting like he’s in a comedy.
Another problem with the film’s storytelling is the repetitiveness. Most of the film is basically a repeat of the same formula. We get a brief interview, Whitey kills someone, Agent Connolly tries to defend Whitey from the FBI, rinse and repeat. This makes the film drag and feel a lot longer than it is, and it could’ve been prevented had Scott Cooper put some life in his directing. I had the same problem with his last directorial effort, Out of the Furnace. He knows how to nail a specific tone, and immerse you in the world, but he never seems to do anything once he grabs you. I can go on about how well shot the film is and how good some of the performances are, but as soon as the credits roll I wonder what the point of it all was. I can tell what he’s going for, but once he starts telling his story, you realize there’s really no story being told. Black Mass isn’t about anything, despite having some potentially thoughtful thematic elements practically handed on a silver platter. It could’ve explored the psyche of Agent Connolly, a man who values hometown traditions such as loyalty over the law. It could’ve been told from the perspective of another agent who finds out about the alliance between Connolly and Whitey Bulger. Or maybe it could’ve followed reporters trying to get an understanding as to how the FBI is so easily manipulated into letting Bulger run mad. Or hell, make it a full-blown, ultraviolent exploitation film, you already got the right kind of lead performance. I read the book that the film was based on. When I finished it, I thought to myself, “wow, you could tell a great story with this!” Instead, it felt like the filmmakers simply went through different pages of the book and picking random sections that they’ll film without any thematic or emotional throughline holding these scenes together.
Despite all that, I don’t think Black Mass is terrible. Perhaps it’s the collection of actors that I all really like or the fact that I have a huge soft spot for the gangster genre. However, the film is a tremendous disappointment coming from someone who has read the book and saw how much potential this crazy story had for a big screen adaptation. The resulting film is an aimless and empty experience with no sense of energy or enthusiasm, making any chances of a re-watch practically nonexistent. The moments that work only work as moments; they never contribute to any greater depth within the film. It’s what happens when you take an unfocused screenplay to a director who is not a good storyteller, a giant pile of mediocrity with only flashes of hollow entertainment. Seriously, just watch The Departed again. 55.