Black Mass

Black Mass photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgBlack Mass is the true story of Whitey Bulger, an organized crime boss of the Boston Irish mob faction known as the Winter Hill Gang. Indicted for 19 murders and sentenced to two consecutive life terms plus five years for his offenses on November 14, 2013, he is currently incarcerated. Prior to this, starting in 1975, Bulger served as an FBI informant. He reported on the inner workings of his rivals, the Italian American Patriarca crime family. In exchange, the bureau turned a blind eye to murder. His organization and their illegal doings went unchecked for years. Once Bulger’s relationship with the FBI was finally exposed by the local media, he went into hiding on December 23, 1994. For 12 of the 16 years he was on the lam, Bulger was #2 on the FBI’s Most Wanted Fugitives list, behind only Osama bin Laden.

The infamous Whitey Bulger has been the stuff of legend in popular culture. In 2006 actor Jack Nicholson portrayed Frank Costello, an individual loosely based on Bulger, in The Departed. The reference is especially apropos because Black Mass frequently calls Martin Scorsese to mind. Not just the Best Picture winner, but Goodfellas as well. Watch Johnny Depp rebuke an FBI agent for too readily revealing his “secret” family recipe for a marinade. The intensity with which he takes him to task for a seemingly honest remark, evokes Joe Pesci’s iconic “How am I funny?” scene in Goodfellas.

Black Mass is a well acted character piece. Joel Edgerton is important as John Connolly, the FBI agent who strikes up an alliance with Bulger, abetted by their childhood friendship. Also Benedict Cumberbatch as Bulger’s more respectable brother who chose the political world instead. Billy Bulger was President of the Massachusetts Senate for 18 years. Also of note is is Julianne Nicholson as the wife of John Connolly, who wants nothing to do with her husband’s schemes, and Corey Stoll as no-nonsense prosecutor Fred Wyshak. The latter two take nothing parts and turn them into the kind of roles that justify Oscar campaigns.

The only one that comes up a bit short is its star. I’ll admit, this is the most captivating Johnny Depp has been since Finding Neverland. He’s engaging and fully committed to the portrayal. Bulger is a frightening figure, as mean as they come. He’ll choke a friend’s stepdaughter with his bare hands if he thinks she might know too much. Regrettably his performance must still rely on an elaborate Tim Burton-style makeup job to “age” Depp into the role. The thinning blonde hair, brushed back to reveal a bald scalp, the rotten teeth, the ghostly, icy blue eyes aided by contacts. His pale, angular appearance makes him somewhat unrecognizable, but the transformation is distracting. It’s exaggerated, unnatural. He preys upon the innocent like a seething vampire. I remember back in 2012, critics were comparing Johnny Depp in Dark Shadows to Nosferatu. Well it’s happening all over again.

Black Mass is a solid, well-structured crime drama. The production is handsomely mounted. The cinematography is well photographed. The account doesn’t hold back from what a horrible man Bulger truly was. He puts a bullet in the head of a contrite friend in mid apology. It’s got brutal events carefully detailed in a fascinating true life tale of corruption. So what’s the problem? It’s a well presented series of facts, but it’s not much more. The studied approach requires passion. The film’s deliberate pace is so stately, it’s almost lethargic. In short, it lacks momentum and depth. It’s entertaining enough, a gripping character study bolstered by a supporting cast of earnest performances. However Black Mass won’t join the ranks of the greatest crime dramas. Along the way it often recalls them, but it pales in comparison.


22 Responses to “Black Mass”

  1. Terrific review, I haven’t given much thought (yet) to Depp’s physical development for this role. . . I guess more prosthetic than physical, but I suppose you’re right. There were a few times where I stopped paying attention to what was being said or going on and thought, ‘wow, Depp looks really intense in this movie.’

    Personally, that was a really nice distraction though b/c it was really intense; there were only one or two times where I saw it was actually Johnny Depp and it took me out of th emovie but for the most part, thought Bulger fit him well. I’m pretty much in agreement with you about the movie surrounding him, though. The movie is good but Depp is pretty great.


    • Depp often relies on bizarre make-up for a role. Here was a time where I wish he hadn’t. It’s telling how many reviews compare his get-up as Whitey Bulger to Max Schreck’s Nosferatu. That is not something to aspire to in a true-life story about a crime kingpin.

      Indeed Depp is back, but he’s still not operating at 100% capacity.


  2. Fine review. I’ve heard almost the same criticisms of this movie from most people but at least there’s a great Johnny Depp performance to be enjoyed. Looking forward to seeing it


  3. A Tale of Two Dans Says:

    Great review man. I totally agree that one scene when he rebukes the FBI agent for giving up a recipe too easily reminded me of that one scene in Goodfellas. I still think Legend was a better gangster movie and more reminiscent of Goodfellas because there was humour involved. In Black Mass the humour was limited…


  4. When I saw this, I really liked it. I give it 4 stars. I’m gonna stick with that rating. With that said, Depp’s make-up was distracting at times. Other than that, I thought everything was very good. Story, acting and intensity kept me involved. When I compare this to”Goodfellas” or “The Departed”, this doesn’t even come close.


  5. Great work Mark. Looking forward to seeing Depp doing something a bit different. Your Nosferatu comment made me chuckle!


  6. Great review Mark! I’m watching it tonight, very intrigued about this one. Nosferatu! LOL XD


  7. Everybody here is great, especially Depp. Makes me hope he decides to take on more projects like this in the future. Nice review Mark.


  8. hmmm I am going to have to rent this one.


  9. Great review here, Mark. I’ve been intrigued by this and by Depp’s transformation. However, I appreciate your honesty in how that doesn’t quite come together. I’ll still be checking it out by my reservations are now in check!


  10. Couldn’t agree more. It was entertaining. Depp was creepy and better than he’s been in years. But the film definitely lacked a plot/storyline with in depth character development. In fact I think we got to know Connelly much better than Bulger. It almost seemed like Connelly’s story instead.


    • Yup, the characters were pretty superficial. Even John Connolly’s (Joel Edgerton) character arc could be reduced down to “good man is seduced by greed.” Good, but not great film.


  11. Black Mass is definitely well-acted. Joel Edgerton is great and Benedict Cumberbatch is an odd choice for Billy Bulger, but he’s fine. I enjoyed Depp as Bulger and thought that he created some really chilling scences (especially the one where he goes to check up on Julianne Nicholson). As a whole the movie is fine, but it’s nothing to write home about. I agree with you that it’s lethargic and lacks momentum. I wasn’t a fan of the editing either. Plus, as someone from Boston, I felt like it didn’t do a good enough job of capturing the personality of the area. Spotlight is a million times better at that. I saw this as the kind of movie you’d see on a weekend afternoon on TNT and watch while you’re doing something else, like laundry.


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