Black Mass
Warner Bros. // R // September 18, 2015
Review by Jeff Nelson | posted September 17, 2015
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Actor Johnny Depp has had an incredibly vibrant career of playing a wide variety of different characters. Some of the projects have been incredibly underwhelming, and he became typecast for a few years. However, his depiction of crime lord Whitey Bulger is meant to restore his image as a versatile artist with the ability to display something different. Black Mass certainly won't have you thinking about pirate Jack Sparrow, but is it a good crime biopic? Unfortunately, it simply doesn't have what it takes to make it worth remembering.

Following the true story of Whitey Bulger (Johnny Depp), this biopic exposes the most infamous violent criminal in the history of South Boston. On a quest for power, he became an FBI informant in order to take down a Mafia family that was invading on his territory. His involvement with FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) ultimately resulted in a shocking tale of murder, corruption, and deceit.

Whether you read about it or saw it in the news, everybody has heard Whitey Bulger's name at one point or another. However, much like many other crime biopics, Black Mass utilizes a framework to tell its story. A few key witnesses discuss what they saw and heard over the years, as the audience is then taken back in time to see Bulger's series of heinous crimes. It's based on real events that we all know about, so there aren't necessarily any twists or turns to speak of, which is why the execution of the screenplay is critical. Unfortunately, Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth's script really drops the ball. It's generic and lacks any sense of tension or conviction. They only scrape the surface of what happened, making it even more similar to the run-of-the-mill crime biopic. There aren't any real moments of suspense, but the film continues to try repeatedly.

To be fair, Black Mass does have some smart character notes that work rather well. Few of them are subtle, but they aid in painting a picture of Bulger that is quite intimidating. However, when it comes to the action, it's underwhelming. Transforming a sensationalized story into a screenplay can be difficult, but it feels as if nobody knew what's important to include. Perhaps approaching this as more of a character study would have been more interesting than entire sections of the feature being taken up by predictable gangster hits being carried out. There are some brilliant moments of his character arc, but they aren't entirely capitalized upon. Even by the time the credits are rolling, it doesn't feel as if we have a stronger understanding of Bulger. Black Mass is often wandering without direction, when it should have had the intention of telling the story of this one man.

The themes of trust and loyalty run deep in this story, as the alliance between Bulger and Connolly is a major element in the film. Given how strongly they feel about their long-formed trust, it isn't very well defined. Rather, it comes and goes, as the film continues to try to stuff as much into two hours as possible. This isn't the way to make a biopic, regardless of how much material needs to be covered. There isn't any emotional payoff at any point. Even at the story's climax, Black Mass never feels like the powerhouse that it should. Instead, it has a laid back attitude that will undoubtedly result in audiences lacking any real feelings for what's taking place on screen. Director Scott Cooper utilizes a flat period piece presentation throughout the film's duration, providing a consistently dull looking picture. Black Mass can best be described as a missed opportunity for something great.

The film's strongest asset is its central performance. Johnny Depp delivers a surprisingly impactful portrayal of Whitey Bulger. This is by far the most convincing element of the film. He commands the screen with a true sense of intimidation and confidence in what he's doing that can best be described as haunting. If you're going to see this movie, Depp is the only reason why. Joel Edgerton turns in a decent performance as well, but the material doesn't give him quite as much to do. Black Mass has an impressive supporting cast as well, but their purpose on screen is insignificant. Benedict Cumberbatch, Kevin Bacon, Peter Sarsgaard, Adam Scott, and Dakota Johnson all have rather small roles with tiny sub-plots that don't connect to Bulger's story in a way that's meaningful.

Johnny Depp's performance and his absurd eye contacts are the main attractions here. Everything else falls into a forgettable category that blends with every other crime biopic out there. Mallouk and Butterworth's screenplay fails to create a cohesive piece of storytelling that truly gets in the mind of Bulger in a way that's either captivating or insightful. Despite some occasional moments of strong characterization, there isn't anything particularly unique about the film. However, it remains to be worth a rental for those who are curious about Johnny Depp's best performance in years. Black Mass strives for greatness, only to get lost in the very mass that its title references. Rent it.



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