Black Mass Movie Review

With a receding hairline that challenges the definition of bald, a prominent dead tooth, and ghostly colorless eyes, Johnny Depp’s ‘Whitey’ Bulger is more suited for a villain in a Dick Tracy story.  While BLACK MASS doesn’t quite match its lead character’s cartoony ways, neither does it complete a compelling dramatic biopic, becoming another forgettable gangsters movie.

Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton in Black Mass

Based on the 2001 book, Black Mass: The True Story of an Unholy Alliance Between the FBI and the Irish Mob, by Dick Lehr, BLACK MASS follows the infamous criminal, James ‘Whitey’ Bulger (Depp).  Brother to state senator William ‘Billy’ Bulger (Benedict Cumberbatch), Whitey is a ruthless and violent killer who decides to strike a deal with his childhood friend, FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) to become an FBI informant. Using the FBI as a shield to his illegal activities while simultaneously helping them take down a rival mafia family invading on his turf in Boston, led to Whitey becoming one of the most notorious criminal bosses of the Irish-American Winter Hill Gang.

Black Mass

Those who love Johnny Depp might find BLACK MASS more redeeming than I did.  However, no matter how captivating his performance might be, I couldn’t get past the over-the-top caricature that was physically presented. The film doesn’t help matters by constantly showing his violent nature without deepening the character’s motives.  In an early scene, Whitey explains to his young son that it’s okay to hit someone as long as nobody is watching.  However, Whitey seems keen on doing all his killing himself, even shooting a man to death in a public parking lot with several witnesses. It’s hard to follow a villain, that doesn’t strike me as particularly intelligent, relying fully and abusing the loyalty of those closest to him.

Johnny Depp, Benedict Cumberbatch in Black Mass

The film stretches from 1975 through 1995, but lingers in the first ten years where it fully captures the bulky clothing and hairstyles with the bleak color palette of wall paper and furniture. Joining the strong acting performances from the previously mentioned Edgerton and Cumberbatch, Peter Sarsgaard, Kevin Bacon, Dakota Johnson, Adam Scott, Rory Cochrane, Corey Stoll, Juno Temple and David Harbour all turn in suitable supporting work.  The standout, however, is Jesse Plemons (Friday Night Lights, Breaking Bad, Fargo) as Kevin Weeks, who provides the most interesting perspective as Whitey’s young enforcer. Opening the film from his point of view is the highlight as I found myself glued to his character.  The story continues the perspective from the rest of Whitey’s henchmen giving witness confessionals.  Unfortunately the technique isn’t consistent, instead opting to stay glued to Depp’s Whitey even when no one is bearing witness.

Director Scott Cooper chooses interesting material but can’t seem to fully connect the story in an engaging way. His previous films, CRAZY HEART (2009) and OUT OF THE FURNACE (2013) suffered the same fate as BLACK MASS; it simply isn’t good enough to have a lasting impact.  As far as gangster movies go, BLACK MASS is not as terrible as 2014’s GANGSTER SQUAD, but it offers nothing of substantial value and will be lost as a forgotten title in a genre thick with greatness.

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