Directed by Scott Cooper
Written by Mark Mallouk & Jez Butterworth
As I sat down in the theater in anticipation of the new Johnny Depp/Scott Cooper movie, Black Mass, a movie about a notorious gangster in Boston, there were various conversations that surrounded me. The lady next to me seemed quite sure she knew just about everything about everything, including movies. This was annoying. Meanwhile, the gentlemen in the row behind me discussed film in a much more respectful and engaging manner, commented on one particular aspect of the film we were about to see that I had not considered recently: that of the losing streak Johnny Depp seems to be on. Depp is a star, an A-lister recognizable by most all in this country that pays any attention to pop culture. The commentary from the gentlemen allowed me to reconsider Depp’s last few years. And while he has had some films that have made some money, has he truly had a great performance since Sweeney Todd, nearly a full decade ago?
This realization threw me a bit for a loop, but I realized that they were probably right. And with that in mind, I considered the trailer and buzz surround Black Mass, in particular the buzz around Depp’s performance. What sets this apart from many of the recent roles Depp has taken on, is that is outside the realm of what we expect him to do. Depp portrays James “Whitey” Bulger, a notorious gangster from South Boston. Bulger was once a small time gangster until he struck up an “alliance” with the FBI and agent/childhood friend John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) to take down the Italian mafia running the streets in the North End. However, this alliance began to go unchecked for far too long, and once the Italians were out of the way, Jimmy began to run the gang scene in Boston, causing a strain between Connolly and the FBI, Connolly and his wife (Julianne Nicholson), and Bulger and just about anyone willing to stand in his path to power.
What drives the story in real life, as in the film version of Jimmy Bulger’s rise to power, is Jimmy Bulger himself, and the tremendous performance by Johnny Depp in the lead role. As I mentioned before, this is a role not quite like anything I have seen Depp in, at least for some time. The veracity with which Depp plays the part allows him to disappear into the role and inhabit the completely creepy and psychotically dangerous Bulger. The production is, however, not a one man show, and in fact features a long list of not only great actors, but great performances. Joel Edgerton and Benedict Cumberbatch deliver expectedly good performances, but it is Julianne Nicholson as agent Connolly’s wife Marianne who steals the show from the supporting roles. Her counterpart, Dakota Johnson, who portrays Jimmy’s girlfriend/baby mama, is the only aspect of the cast that feels particularly out of place.
The real life story is pretty dauntingly dark for director Scott Cooper to pull off. Cooper, whose previous films Crazy Heart and Out of the Furnace featured both great potential and performances, but also showed a room for improvement. I think Cooper finds some of that here, but certainly falls short once again of the full potential of the source material, and perhaps the source material is far too deep to cram into a single, 120 minute film like Black Mass. The cast of characters is long, and with the weaving, conniving and scheming, it is hard to keep track of at times, though not impossible. But I felt the film’s greatest weakness was its penchant for skimming. There was very little attention to great detail, hitting the highlights of a rather long story in order to make it fit into the runtime with sufficient impact. This ironically lessens the impact of the film.
Ultimately, Black Mass is a perfectly “enjoyable” film. Enjoyable as much as an at times very violent and unsettling gangster movie can be. Cooper helms the ship enough to allow his great cast deliver a good movie. With the exceptions of perhaps a pivotal scene between Depp and Johnson, which shows the audience how much better Depp is than Johnson, and a series of scenes that revolve around a casual cookout hosted by the Connolly’s with Bulger in attendance, there are no memorable scenes. The film lacks any true signature to set it apart from any other fairly good gangster film of the past. This is less a knock on what the film is able to accomplish than it is an observation, and one which aims to maybe quell any exuberant expectations that Black Mass could be the next great gangster flick, or a serious Oscar contender this awards season, save Depp for Best Actor.
*** – Good