Black Mass Review: Beantown Beat Down

Director: Scott Cooper

Starring: Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch

Please note, this review contains minor spoilers.

The Overview

Black Mass is based on the true story of James “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp), one of the most infamous, violent criminals in U.S. history. The story focuses on the relationship Whitey had with the FBI (becoming one of their informants), whilst simultaneously creating terror in the streets of South Boston.

The Good

Black Mass is a real return to form for Johnny Depp. Having starred in a series of flops (The Lone Ranger, Mortdecai) recently, it is great to see Johnny Depp in a really strong role, proving what an amazing actor he is without the need for crazy make-up; or excessive crazy make-up anyway! He manages to tone down the “Johnny Depp-ness” to bring a performance which is full of quiet malice. So much is said with an unnerving steely-eyed glare and a menacing scowl. He nails the accent as well, and manages to make you feel empathy one minute, and completely terrify you the next!

It’s quite a depressing film, but I liked that they haven’t tried to force comedy, or make it an entertaining story. My one criticism of the film Legend (you can check out my review for that here), was that it shied away from the gritty realism of the story of The Kray Twins, making it more comical than it ever should have been, and therefore playing down the atrocities that they committed. In stark contrast, Black Mass is gritty, dark, shocking, and really does this story justice. There really is little to like about Whitey Bulger, and this remains constant throughout the film.

Interestingly, as the lines blur between Bulger and John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), it is Connolly’s story which becomes the more interesting one. Bulger’s capture seems like an inevitability whereas unravelling the truth about the FBI corruption and the extent of Connolly’s involvement is much more intriguing. I liked this balance and that the sole focus wasn’t on Bulger as it added an extra dynamic to the story. Joel Edgerton is also great as the cop who isn’t all that he seems.

The Bad

I’ll get a small matter out the way first. Jesse Plemons’ (who plays Kevin Weeks, one of Whitey’s cronies) and Adam Scott’s (who played an FBI agent) awful wig and facial hair respectively were so laughably fake that it was almost offensive. I haven’t been this follicly offended since Kate Mara’s magical colour changing hair in Fantastic Four.

Most of the actors pulled off the Boston accent with great aplomb, however Benedict Cumberbatch as Whitey’s brother Billy, was absolutely atrocious. He is an incredible actor, but wow what a bad casting choice.

The supporting characters in the Winter Hill Gang are totally forgettable, and largely interchangeable. This not only gives Johnny Depp far too much of the film’s weight to carry, but ultimately makes for quite a tedious watch in places. It is very difficult to care about people we barely know, and can’t tell apart from the others.

I really disliked how it cut between telling the story and the FBI interviews with the members of Whitey’s gang. It is a trope I have seen far too many times. It is a true story, most people probably know how it ends, but it takes away any attempt at tension or misdirection if you pretty much know all these people are going to get caught anyway. It also means the plot is a little bit all over the place. It is a mess of threads, a series of murders and attacks, loosely strung together by an attempt at a plot, and unnecessary flash-forwards. It is only a two hour film, but honestly, it felt like three!

Whilst I did really rate Depp as Bulger, the Whitey we see is a little one dimensional. Depp plays this dimension exceptionally well, but I would have liked to have seen some more facets to his personality. There were two key deaths in the film which would have directly affected Bulger, but yet they were dealt with in a very offhand manner. I get that the Bulger we see is a cold, emotionless killer, but why bother introducing these other elements to his life, and then making it seem like they barely matter to him? A tad odd to say the least.

The Verdict

I saw this movie so you don’t have to. I really wanted to like this film, but it is such a tedious watch. Depp is outstanding, and as already mentioned, it is great to see him in a role which is a real return to form. However, with a disjointed plot, weak supporting cast, ropey accents and awful facial hair, there are too many things dragging this film behind, ultimately making it too heavy for Depp to carry on his own. Give this one a miss!

Agree with everything I’ve said, or am I a terribly misguided idiot who has got it all wrong? Please let me know in the comments, and don’t forget to share as well.

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