Movie Review: Black Mass

Black Mass benefits from the outstanding performance by Johnny Depp, a reliable supporting cast, and deft film-making choices, but ultimately rings hollow because of its generic wikified plot.

In 1970s South Boston, FBI Agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) persuades Irish mobster James “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp) to collaborate with the FBI and eliminate a common enemy: the Italian mob. The drama tells the true story of this unholy alliance, which spiraled out of control, allowing Whitey to evade law enforcement, consolidate power, and become one of the most ruthless and powerful gangsters in Boston history.

After a string of cosmic misfires Johnny Depp has found a silver lining through Black Mass, a gangster-cum-biopic that offers a chance to redeem himself.

Luckily for the movie, he delivers a return to form performance that will ring up some Oscar buzz. The deftly controlled yet powerful delivery infuses Bulger’s presence with silent foreboding. Even with the obvious contact lenses, you are aware that the slightest mistake can earn any character a spot in his burial ground. In one dinner scene, Bulger toys with John Morris as he wrings the details of a secret recipe and questions his veracity, only to say that it’s just a joke. We all know that it isn’t and he’s laugh feels more menacing than comforting.

Joel Edgerton stands out from the rest of the supporting cast with a flawless Boston accent and bravado. He walks around in fancy suits with a self-assurance as if he’ll never get caught, peddling half truths and slyly diverting attention away from his schemes.

The plan – an ill-advised alliance between Bulger and the feds – stretches from late 1970’s to early 80’s. The movie looks like it was filmed during that time, rather than made to look like it was shot at that period. Cinematography and production design delivers a period accurate vibe. The widescreen 35mm format provides nice character compositions and gave it an authentic look. Set pieces and costumes were very convincing.

While the alliance that catapulted Bulger from small time crook to king pin delivers great moments, it doesn’t come together as a compelling story.

The plot goes through the motions like bullet points in Wikipedia. The movie doesn’t provide a believable look at Bulger’s sprawling empire and his machinations. The audience is left to assume that he’s earning a lot of money from vending machines and some other bad criminal stuff, while being able to maintain it with a few henchmen.

It also doesn’t provide any perspective from its characters nor even try to portray them as individuals. The movie is more concerned about their notoriety to deliver a gangster story. Connolly and Bulger both came from the projects and have parallels, but the movie barely scratches the surface as the plot prefers to tread on the familiar lines of loyalty and fraternity.

Important secondary characters are included but the movie suffers from popularity-driven casting. Adam Scott is miscast as an FBI agent. Benedict Cumberbatch, who doesn’t have the slightest brotherly resemblance with Depp’s transformation as Bulger, delivers a reedy accent where you can hear the desperate tones of his British voice trying to get out. In fairness, Depp is surrounded by a henchmen of good supporting actors, while David Harbour is good as the misguided John Morris. Overall though, none of the characters are worth investing in.

In the end, Black Mass finishes with a typical fact based montage. The movie isn’t thought provoking nor groundbreaking. It unravels as a procedural that is as clinical as its subject. It provides no social commentary, compelling thematic hook, or even love-to-hate characters.

On the other hand, is still manages to be a well executed anti-hero underdog story as a well funded feature just in time for the Oscar season.

If you’re looking for a neatly packaged biopic with an A-list treatment, Black Mass is adequate enough. However, if you’re looking for an in-depth look at James “Whitey” Bulger and the world he ruled albeit temporary, you are better off searching somewhere else.

My Rating: 7/10

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