In case you’re wondering, no the movie never actually references a “black mass” nor explains its title’s significance. You have to look at the poster’s tagline: “Witness the unholy union between the FBI and Whitey Bulger.” If that sounds like poor execution, then wait til you see the finished product!
The film covers the relationship and lives of James “Whitey” Bulger and his former childhood friend turned FBI agent, John Connolly. Whitey agrees to be an informant for the FBI to bring down the Italian mafia in Boston. In exchange, Whitey is allowed to continue his criminal activities provided he doesn’t deal drugs or kill anyone….suffice it to say, that part of the deal is quickly forgotten. While Whitey’s info actually does lead to the takedown of the mafia, Whitey takes the opportunity to prop himself as the new kingpin of Boston during the 80s and 90s.
That sounds like an off putting and dry plot synopsis, but that’s because this film doesn’t have a plot. It has a “premise,” that is watching the true life story of the rise and fall of Whitey’s Winterhill Gang, but it has no plot. It’s just a collection of events varying in significance in the life of Whitey Bulger. Mostly punctuated by murders that everyone involved has agreed that he either had a part in or are at least reasonably sure he committed.
It’s the epitome of “and then this happened and then this happened and then this and the end.” There isn’t even a central theme to the film even as it tries to make it about “loyalty” and “ratting out.” A film that does these themes flawlessly (because it had a world class director) is The Departed. Incidentally, Jack Nicholson’s mob boss character was heavily influenced by the tale of Whitey Bulger and more aptly summed up themes of family, loyalty, betrayal, and living a double life with an enormous cast of high caliber actors.
Thankfully, like The Departed, Black Mass also boats a strong cast of actors that all brought their A game. Of note, we of course have Johnny Depp as Whitey. Despite having a distractingly awful makeup job, Depp gives the best performance I’ve seen of him in….Jebas, a long freaking time. There are several scenes where he’s downright unsettling and unnerving. Even when he’s not being creepy, you’re still scared of what he’ll do next.
But even he’s not the only standout performance. Joel Edgerton plays as Whitey’s FBI connection, and it’s great to see what an utterly pathetic creature he ends up becoming. One downside to his character, however, is that his wife says he’s “changed” for the worse as the movie progresses; the problem is you really don’t see that evolution in his behavior as he’s more of a dumb dog then anything more sinister as the movie tries to portray him at points. Once again, a better director could have helped him along, but the script doesn’t do him any favors either. Still Edgerton had the third most memorable performance in the film he had to share with smorgasbord of great thespians.
Who has the distinction of second most memorable you ask? That would be everyone’s favorite Brit, Benedict “Fuck Mutheirng” Cumberbatch. That’s because he’s pulling a South Boston accent like he’s been using it since childhood. He plays as Whitey’s brother who was also a Massachusetts senator back in the 70s and 80s, who mostly stayed out of Whitey’s criminal activities but showed a lot of love for his criminal brother. This was perhaps an interesting angle to follow as a film, but the movie drops that plot point to focus on about 17 other ones at once.
It really is disappointing to have such a mediocre movie have some stellar performances. Nothing else about the movie is even remotely memorable; not the script which follows dozens of plot points that don’t relate to each other and using a weak framing device in the form of interrogations of Whitey’s former associates. Not the direction, which conflicts with the great performances at times with highly uneven pacing and static, boring camera angles. Not even the score works. There are some great scenes here that are totally silent that could have used some tense music in the background and others that use tense music in completely filler situations.
The movie is still worth a look for the great acting, hell I’m finally happy with Johnny Depp of all people. Granted my goodwill will dissipate once the next Pirates movie and Alice in Wonderland comes out, but it’s still nice to see the guy has a shred of integrity left in him. Normally in these situations I’ll assign a Rental, but with acting this good, I’ll award this (a very low)….