There is the occasional film in which one performance is greater than the whole. One element stands out starkly against all else, even with a cast of notably skilled actors. This is true of Johnny Depp’s performance as James “Whitey” Bulger in BLACK MASS. That is not to say in relative terms that the film is ‘bad.’ Depp desperately needed a role with some gravitas and depth to it to resurrect his acting career, and he could not have chosen to rise from the ashes inhabiting a better character than Whitey Bulger. A brief primer for those of you who shun the news or have been living in internet-free underground tunnels for the last decade or so; James “Whitey” Bulger is a Boston born organized crime boss who led a notorious Irish gang called The Winter Hill Gang. He held Boston in a reign of terror for decades and was also reported to be a longtime FBI informant. That privileged and hightly unethical relationship allowed him to continue his widespread extortion, racketeering and violence (he was indicted in 19 counts of murder) without consequence. Ultimately he was tipped-off by his childhood friend and handler at the bureau, John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), that he was to be arrested and charged with murders as well as many other crimes under RICO (look it up – it’s interesting). Bulger fled Boston and was on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list for 12 years. This true story is compelling, tense, edgy and above all fascinating. However, BLACK MASS, tragically, possess few of those qualities.
BLACK MASS is directed by Scott Cooper (CRAZY HEART, OUT OF THE FURNACE) and credits four screenwriters, two of whom wrote the book of the same name upon which the film is based. It is Mark Mallouk’s first screenplay but one of many for co-writer Jez Butterworth. Given a somewhat experienced director, a story with such innate tension, and a notably accomplished cast, it is a mystery why the film is so lacking dramatic tension for the vast majority of it. Critical personal events occur which barely raise Bulger’s pulse let alone allow any glimpse of agony or shift in his behavior and world view. Bulger’s brutality is, in the most literal sense of the word, breathtaking, and yet seems stale. There is no visible stress or unease inherent in any of the characters save for one, a peripheral Miami associate played beautifully by the twitchy and tormented Peter Sarsgaard. Sarsgaard has cornered the market on sweaty, menacing and believably volatile individuals. When his character Brian Halloran appears it is as though the screen and the story come to life for the first time. Depp provides a steady menacing presence without a doubt, but he lacks a forum to deliver that power with razor sharpness and palpable menace. A gun shot in a vacuum doesn’t make any noise no matter how many people it happens to pierce.
More importantly BLACK MASS fails to provide us with a key narrative component; a reason why. Violence and anger for the sake of violence and anger quickly become dull. With CGI and extraordinary make-up virtually any kind of gruesomeness can be realistically crafted. What we really want in a story, what we need, particularity in a story about criminals, is why they do it. Of course money and power are great fun but there has to be a backstory – a drive – to get all Freudian about it, gimme some id. If we cannot understand Bulger and what compels him, we cannot get emotionally involved with him and that omission is the critical failure of BLACK MASS. In the character of John Connolly we get a bit more; a glimpse of his desperate craving for recognition, and, by association, power via fear. Connolly is actually the most interesting character in the film but his role falls flat. Towards the end suddenly the movie comes alive. It is almost as though a different director stepped in and took off some invisible restraints that stifled the cast. We see Bulger and Connolly finally emote, and in turn we for the first time become involved with the cast. Make no mistake, in no way do I mean to demean the transformative and commanding performance given by Depp. But he could have given an awe-inspiring performance were it not for the directorial tentativeness sapping energy from the bulk of the film and its actors.
There are some beautiful shots in BLACK MASS and it visually conveys the small claustrophobic corner of the world that was ruled by Bulger. The supporting cast is noteworthy including FBI staff Kevin Bacon, Adam Scott, David Harbour and particularly Corey Stoll (ANTMAN) who, as US Attorney Fred Wyshak brings an end to the wildly corrupt agent Connolly. As members of The Winter Hill Gang Jesse Plemons and Rory Cochrane, Bulger’s closest aids and collaborators Weeks and Flemmi respectively, create a powerful cloak around Depp but lack any authentic force of their own. Benedict Cumberbatch gives his best Boston Irish politician impersonation as Bulger’s brother William and as usual is a pillar of authenticity. The two token females, Bulger’s longtime girlfriend and mother of his child Lindsey Cyr is given her due respect by Dakota Johnston, and Connolly’s wife Marianne is very well portrayed by Julianne Nicholson. Both women are peripheral though and as can be expected in stories of this kind, thankless roles. There was enjoyment and satisfaction in watching Depp’s assumption of Bulger body and soul, I wish only that the world surrounding him was filled with the passion and depth both the actor and the real James Bulger deserve.(3.5 / 5)
Director: Scott Cooper
Cast: Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Kevin Bacon, Adam Scott, David Harbour, Dakota Johnson, Julianne Nicholson
Running Time: 122 minutes
BLACK MASS Movie Review