Cast: Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Rory Cochrane, Kevin Bacon, Jesse Plemons, Corey Stoll, Peter Sarsgaard, Dakota Johnson
Director: Scott Cooper
Writers: Jez Butterworth, Mark Mallouk
Black Mass marks the latest addition to the gangster genre that is such a staple of American cinema. This film is very much in the vein of Scorsese’s Goodfellas and The Departed (which was actually inspired by Whitey’s story) as it depicts a real-life gangster’s rise and downfall. There is something so utterly fascinating about these types of films that make them so compelling to watch. At the heart of them there is a Macbethian journey taking place. The main characters are always fatally flawed figures who scale the heights of wealth, prestige and power but inevitably become the architects of their own destruction. This is a journey that has been undertaken by a wealth of iconic film characters from Tom Powers to Tony Montana. Black Mass depicts this same story through the eyes of Whitey Bulger, the infamous mobster who became one of America’s most notorious criminals and then went on the run for 16 years.
In 1975 Whitey Bulger (Johnny Depp), who holds a prominent position of power in the Boston crime scene, is approached by FBI Agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton). Connolly, who is also a childhood friend of Whitey, requests him to become an informant for the FBI, a prospect that Whitey vehemently rejects until he realises the advantages to be gained with the FBI’s support and protection. Whitey, with the aid of his associates Steve Flemmi (Rory Cochrane) and Kevin Weeks (Jesse Plemons), begets a reign of violence and corruption as he consolidates his position as the most powerful mobster in Boston all the while exploiting his relationship with the FBI to serve his own ends. Whitey’s increasing irrationality soon causes endless trouble for the FBI as well as those closest to him, particularly his wife Lindsey Cyr (Dakota Johnson) and his political brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch). The more Whitey’s power grows, the more unstable he gets and it isn’t long until he becomes a problem too big for the FBI to ignore.
This type of story is one that has been done before and it has been done better. It is to its credit a well-told story that highlights such themes as corruption and the loss of humanity as it depicts Whitey’s descent. The character is initially a caring, if otherwise troubled, man as the film starts off but that side of him gets lost as he experiences both the corruption of power and the pains of loss. However what I felt this film lacked was a sense of purpose. I never felt there was any real fluidity in the narrative or any profound character development that ventured beneath the surface. What I saw instead was a series of violent episodes from Whitey Bulger’s life cobbled together without any real direction or flow. I think this kind of narrative is typical of the problems that come with telling the story of a particular subject rather than using that subject to tell a story. The story never feels like it is speaking of anything deeper or larger than itself even though I feel like it is trying to. The film certainly isn’t badly written or badly directed, it just doesn’t have that artistry or meaning behind it that made films like Goodfellas classics.
Perhaps the film’s biggest strength is Johnny Depp who is taking a refreshing break from being a parody of himself. As Whitey Depp displays his chameleonic ability to completely inhabit characters and delivers the type of deranged, vicious performance that we always knew he was capable of. The makeup does a good job of hiding the actor behind the performance and allows Depp to utilise some truly grotesque and intimidating expressions befitting the character. The other members of the cast are serviceable in their roles but I’m struggling to think of anyone who really came into their own like Depp did. The film for the most part is well shot and does evoke a tense and unsettling atmosphere but to me it just didn’t feel like there was much happening beneath it all.
I think that Black Mass is a good enough film to watch but I don’t see it becoming a classic of its genre. It has the makings of a good film but lacks the visionary insight that can be found in the best of these films. After watching it I didn’t feel like I had really learned anything about Whitey as a person or that his story had brought anything new to the genre as a whole. I found aspects of the film to be interesting but was never captivated by the overall story nor was I wholly invested in the main character’s journey. I instead found it be a typically standard film that didn’t take any risks or offer anything that is distinguishable from what has come before. It is a worthy attempt on the filmmakers’ parts, but I feel it ultimately falls short of the kind of film that it’s trying to be.