Released theatrically on September 18th; now available on DVD/Blu-ray and video-on-demand
Black Mass is definitive proof of how difficult it is to make not just a great film, but even a good film.
The framework is certainly in place for Black Mass to be a standout movie. Compelling source material? It’s based on the 2000 book Black Mass: The True Story of an Unholy Alliance Between the FBI and the Irish Mob about James “Whitey” Bulger. Bulger was an FBI informant whilst simultaneously rising to the upper level of Boston’s organized crime ranks via brutal methods. Then, before he could be arrested on racketeering charges, he fled and was on the run for 16 years as one of the FBI’s ten most wanted fugitives, before being captured in 2011. So make that a boldfaced check. How about a talented and committed lead actor? Check number two, as Johnny Depp signs on, did plenty of homework on his subject, and transforms his face and hair to more closely resemble the notorious gangster. Strong supporting cast? Kevin Bacon, Benedict Cumberbatch, Corey Stoll, Adam Scott, Julianne Nicholson, Peter Saarsgard, Joel Edgerton, and Jesse Plemons make that a resounding check number three. While all of these ingredients are abundantly fertile ground on which to build a great film, director Scott Cooper and his screenwriters still can’t save Black Mass from being a limp, forgettable mess.
Depp’s portrayal carries a decent amount of the imposing and unsettling quality that the thuggish Bulger displayed. Much of that comes from the confident swagger he instills into the character. The visual mimicry also plays a large role, as Depp dons a dead tooth, prosthetics, and an intricately constructed hairpiece to replicate Bulger’s facial features and baldness. Then there’s those blue contact lenses. Depp’s eyes in Black Mass are extremely distracting. The lenses seem bizarrely unhuman when shown in close-up shots, almost zombie-like. That contributes to the lack of investment I had with his version of Bulger. The actor just never disappears into the role and I was consistently hyper-aware that it was a made-up Depp I was watching.
The large collection of fine supporting actors barely register any performances that won’t quickly fade from your memory. Edgerton’s corrupt FBI agent character who has childhood ties to Bulger should resonate much deeper, but doesn’t. The same goes for Cumberbatch’s character, who’s Bulger’s brother and an extremely powerful Massachusetts politician. You couldn’t ask for a better recipe to explore a complex family dynamic, but the characters’ scenes together simply don’t generate any interest. And just wondering — can Adam Scott ever not play a character that’s a total dick?
To be fair, Depp and his ensemble are completely let down by a bungled script that dilutes a fascinating true-crime story into an uninspired, wasted opportunity. On a massive scale. Everything about Black Mass feels lazily ripped off from other crime dramas.
How a character as intriguing and complicated as Whitey Bulger emerges from a film about his life feeling thinly drawn and dull speaks to a serious failing in that film’s creative process. My first thought as Black Mass' credits rolled was that it disappointingly paralleled an organized crime drama I wrote about in 2012, The Iceman. That movie also miserably failed at telling the real-life story of mob hitman Richard Kuklinski. For the best cinematic telling of Bulger’s story, give a wide berth of Black Mass and watch Joe Berlinger’s engrossing Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger documentary, which I reviewed here.