Black Mass SPOILER-FREE Review
Surrounding the release of the Whitey Bulger biopic, many people had questions about Black Mass. Would it be a return to greatness for Johnny Depp? Would it live up to expectations as an intense mob thriller? Would this be one of the best pictures of the year? These are all questions that raced through my head as I entered the theater, as well as many others. With the summer blockbuster season officially over and the Oscar season beginning, Black Mass was one of my most anticipated of the fall. You can read my full Fall Movie Preview here. Being from Boston myself, I was especially interested in the story of the notorious gangster who evaded the police for some many years. And after so many flat and dull performances from Depp, I was ready for him to knock it out of the park. So I walked into the theater excited and hopeful. Ultimately, Black Mass isn't a perfect movie, but it does prove to be the return of Johnny Depp.
The film centers on Boston gangster Jimmy "Whitey" Bulger, who seems to be in the prime of his criminal career. He's a notorious crime lord-- controlling drug trades, money laundering and everything else your typical mobster would do. Whitey's brother, Billy Bulger (Benedict Cumberbatch), is a Massachusetts senator who is either entirely ignorant of his brother's criminal doings, or is simply willing to let it slide. For years the FBI have been trying to get Whitey, until John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), an old childhood friend of the Bulgers, suggest the FBI strikes up an alliance with the South Boston mobster to nab the Italian Mob in the North End. But over the next several years, Connolly grows closer and closer to Whitey, and soon he goes from being a straight FBI agent to in turn working for Whitey.
Black Mass disappoints in that it doesn't feel like a classic mob movie along the lines of a Goodfellas or The Departed. Rather, it's a human drama led by powerful and compelling performances from Johnny Depp and Joel Edgerton. Depp is unrecognizable as Whitey Bulger. He has been criticized countless times in the past for taking on over-the-top, make-up infused "cartoonish" character roles, such as the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland, the Wolf in Into the Woods, Tonto in The Lone Ranger, Barnabas in Dark Shadows, and so forth. But in this film, Depp uses make-up to his advantage to become lost in the role. Everything from his mannerisms to his voice completely embody Whitey. But what makes him so terrifying isn't what he does necessarily, but what he doesn't do. The fact that Whitey is so sane and restrained throughout the film makes the scenes when he snaps so much more frightening. There is a fantastic scene between Whitey and John Connolly's wife (Julianne Nicholson) that gave me chills. With Depp, director Scott Cooper introduces a fantastic contrast, by having a scene of Whitey Bulger helping an old lady with her groceries and playing cards with his elderly mother to mercilessly beating an enemy and gunning down a guy in cold blood.
But while everyone was looking for Depp to nail this performance, no one expected Joel Edgerton to be as good as he was. While the movie was about Depp as Whitey, Edgerton's Connolly brought the spirit and the life to the film. In many ways, this movie is told from his perspective and deals with a lot more of his issues rather than Whitey's. As an audience member, we see Edgerton's principles and values as an FBI agent deteriorate as he grows closer to the lifestyle and the addictive persona of Whitey Bulger. And while Edgerton himself doesn't see the fault in his ways, it's realized through other people, such as his wife and new U.S. Attorney Fred Wyshak (Corey Stoll). But as time passes on and the movie progresses, Edgerton becomes even more ignorant of his corruption. Like I said before, everyone was looking for Depp to knock this out of the park. No one expected Edgerton to be this good, and that's why his performance was more of a highlight in the film than Depp's was.
The problem with Black Mass is that it feels a little hollow. You have some incredible stand-alone scenes and two fantastic performances from Edgerton and Depp, but the rest of the movie is a bit flat. Not a lot ends up happening, which leaves you disappointed. You go in expecting to get a cool mob film in the style of a Goodfellas, and that's not what this movie is. As I said before, it is more of a human drama. There are definitely cool scenes and memorable moments, but as a whole the film doesn't entirely work. The pacing wasn't always consistent, causing some parts to drag and others to go by too fast. And when you look at the film, not a lot actually happened. Black Mass had a strong start in setting up the basic idea of the FBI forming an alliance with Whitey Bulger, and then it jumps six or so years and a lot of the momentum built up is lost. The movie then proceeds to jump all over the place, showing us scenes of random acts of violence and brutality that don't necessarily string together, departing from the ultimate story. It feels like this movie strayed from its story, and resulted in a series of scenes that have no purpose other than to exploit the menacing nature of Whitey. The problem is that these scenes are not nearly as strong as they should have been, as they feel jammed in without any real connection to the overall story.
My other problem with this film was how some of the supporting cast was handled. With such a talented cast, it felt like actors like Corey Stoll, Kevin Bacon, Adam Scott and Jesse Plemons were underused and pushed to the sidelines. The characters had few scenes, and felt wasted especially with the talent brought in to fill these roles. I also thought that Benedict Cumberbatch was underused in the movie. From the advertisements, I had the impression that he would be an almost co-lead in the film, but he seemed to all but disappear by the second act of the film. Can I also say that Johnny Depp and Benedict Cumberbatch looked nothing alike, and I had a really hard time buying them as brothers? I think he's a terrific actor, one of my favorites, but Cumberbatch's accent didn't sound right. I did enjoy seeing him in this film, but between him being underused, his accent and his looking nothing like Johnny Depp, I found him to be distracting on screen.
Overall, Black Mass doesn't live up as a mob movie, but rather turns out to be a human drama, driven by fantastic performances from Johnny Depp and Joel Edgerton. Both actors have a very high probability of being nominated come the Academy Awards. But while the performances were excellent, the story becomes a little muddled from an inconsistent pace and a detour from the main story. Some of the supporting actors were underused, and while Benedict Cumberbatch was enjoyable in his role, he became distracting on screen. This is not one of the best films of the year, but Edgerton and Depp will be remembered specifically for this film, and will hopefully be remember come next February when the Academy is casting its votes.
What do you think? Did you see Black Mass? Did you like it? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below.
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