by Justin Madore
From the October 2015 IssueBlack Mass is such a frustrating way to begin the fall movie slate. All the trappings of a great film are there. Interesting premise? Check. Great cast? Check. Great director? Check. While completely competent in its own right, it simultaneously struggles to be anything more than that. While Johnny Depp turns in his best performance of this past half decade, Black Mass screams average at almost every turn. Infuriatingly, it’s a film that fails to be as great as we want it to be.
That’s not to say it fails to be interesting. Based on the book, Black Mass: The True Story of an Unholy Alliance Between the FBI and the Irish Mob by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill, it follows in the same vein of many a famous gangster flick, drawing inspiration from The Departed, The Town, and Goodfellas. The plot closely follows James “Whitey” Bulger’s (Depp) relationship with the FBI and his moves to outflank and outmaneuver his enemies. When his childhood friend and now FBI agent, John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) comes to him with a deal he can’t refuse, he does a deed considered dirty within his criminal field: he partners with the feds.
The focus of the story is his relationship with Connolly and how the partnership affects both their lives. Depp’s portrayal of the iconic gangster (oddly the second one he’s played in the last ten years, following his turn as John Dillinger in Public Enemies) reminds me a lot of Steve Carell’s performance in last year’s Foxcatcher by Bennett Miller, and not just because they both use a distracting amount of make-up. Both are very subdued, very straight performances for the majority of the film’s duration. They don’t get extremely expressive until the second half of their respective films, thus making the impact of their full acting range that much more potent. Depp does wonderfully as the alternatingly polite, menacing, loyal, and psychopathic crime lord without any of the heightened dialogue or weird accents audiences have come to expect from a Depp performance.
The actors playing those surrounding Bulger and Connolly do a convincing job of making the setting come to life. The Boston accents are pretty great, with everyone in the ensemble from Adam Scott to Benedict Cumberbatch doing a wicked job with their voice work. The look and feel of the city is strictly Boston as well. There are some nice shots showcasing landmarks, the grime of the city and the chill of the air.
However, while these characters sport believable accents, the characters themselves are also a detriment to the overall narrative. Connolly, who is introduced initially as the protagonist, never feels like one. There’s very little charisma to him, and although Edgerton is not a bad actor, the dialogue written for him simply doesn’t do him any favors. The remainder of the bureau comes off as very uninteresting and not particularly valiant as well. Without a clear protagonist to root for, the movie becomes a bit off-putting at certain points.
Director Scott Cooper does an adequate job matching the quality of his previous films. The direction is solid, but not mind-blowing. There isn’t a lot of tricky camerawork or very effective cinematography; the soundtrack is present, but not mindblowing; and the dialogue is realistic, but not particularly interesting. Are you noticing a trend here? While I acknowledge that the 80’s gangster flick genre is pretty played out at this point, it is so frustrating as a movie fan to see such great material not handled in the best way possible. The film brings absolutely nothing new to the table in terms of narrative structure, character writing, editing, or cinematography. Aside from Depp’s performance, Black Mass feels like a meal at Applebee’s. It’s not a four star meal, but it sure is better than having the leftover meatloaf in the fridge.
2.5 out of 5 stars