Scott Cooper’s Black Mass covers the life of Boston Gangster James Bulger (Johnny Depp) when he acted as an FBI informant from 1975 to the nineties.
In theory this film is really interesting as it has different elements at play to make this a really deep story. The idea of Federal corruption around the gangland backdrop adds another factor to the whole narrative but the elements never quite combine into anything engaging.
Johnny Depp turns in a great performance as Bulger. Depp undergoes a complete physical transformation to embody Bulger. He is unsettling to look at and always seems to be just on the edge of snapping at anyone around him. The best scenes involve him intimidating someone by lulling them into a false sense of security when a friendly chat quickly turns sinister. Depp plays the instant and terrifying transformation in Bulger perfectly and definitely reminds audiences that he is a good actor after several misfires in recent times.
Joel Edgerton is similarly effective as FBI handler John Connolly. His friendship with Bulger is almost the focal point of the film but suffers as the story meanders into too many characters. The idea of an FBI agent being sucked into this world and going rogue is an interesting one so I would have liked to see it explored more thoroughly. Edgerton does a great job with what he is given and is one of the more engaging presences in the film.
Benedict Cumberbatch plays Bulger’s younger brother Billy. He’s a senator who doesn’t actually participate in any criminal activity but also remains uncooperative with the FBI. Interestingly by doing this he has a stronger moral grounding than the others. Cumberbatch is a good actor but he wasn’t given an awful lot to work with here. He dips in and out of the story so never really feels like a part of it and I felt that there was something off about his interaction with Depp.
Kevin Bacon is somewhat in the same boat as Cumberbatch. He gives a great performance but his character is so thin that I’m not sure why he’s in the film beyond the fact that the real person he is portraying was present for these events.
The story itself feels a little all over the place and the performances definitely elevate the material. Most of the characters feel vastly underdeveloped as they don’t change an awful lot throughout the film. It’s hard to put a finger on the motivations of everyone involved or know anything about them beyond what they do. I feel that if the film had a tighter focus on a specific person then it could have achieved its goal a lot more effectively. The film starts as if it’s going to follow local thug Kevin Weeks (Jesse Plemons) as he develops in the shadow of a legendary gangster but the perspective jumps around so much that the film feels unfocused.
Black Mass doesn’t do anything that is technically bad but I never found any of it engaging beyond the performances. I found many of the scenes very uninteresting with lots of pointless filler that slowed the pacing down to a crawl for much of it. The film is also littered with far too many Boston Gangster clichès that much of it starts to feel lazy. There’s some appeal to it but there are far better examples out there.
An underwhelming effort that is vastly elevated by powerful performances from the cast to help compensate for a by the numbers story.
In theory the different elements on display should make this an interesting film as there is the Federal corruption angle amidst the backdrop of gangland Boston. It’s a shame that these elements never quite combine into something engaging.
Johnny Depp is great as Bulger. He undergoes a significant physical transformation to embody this person and combines that with a really unsettling and unstable performance. He always seems to be on the edge of snapping at everyone around him. The best scenes involve him interrogating people by lulling them into a false sense of security before pouncing with a threat. The perspective jumps around so much that the narrative feels unfocused.
Benedict Cumberbatch does well as Bulger’s younger brother Billy. He doesn’t have an awful lot to work with but comes across as the most moral character in the film.
Joel Edgerton does a really good job as John Connolly. His nuanced performance adds real depth to him but the meandering story prevents his friendship with Bulger taking as much focus as it should. He dips in and out of the story without really feeling like a part of it so Cumberbatch can only do so much with what he is given.
Kevin Bacon is in a similar boat. He has some good scenes but never really feels like part of anything despite how significant a part the real person probably had in all of this.
The story is definitely all over the place with the performances elevating the material. If the focus had been on Jesse Plemons’ Kevin Weeks like the opening suggested then the film may have accomplished its goal more effectively