Scott Cooper’s Black Mass kicks off the fall movie season which is usually a mix of smaller independent fair, summer leftovers or Hollywood movies that are seeking Oscar gold in some form or another. Considering the star power that rests with in the frames of this film we can most assuredly toss this in to the later. Black Mass is a bit of a hybrid of Scorsesesque gangster flick and Hollywood biopic. Johnny Depp is back in one of his more “grounded” roles in a while, which really isn’t saying much at all considering the weirdness he’s been courting for Disney. He’s a ridiculously attractive mega movie star who really really wants to be a character actor. He takes lead roles and douses them in convoluted make up and costuming; bouncing around the screen as if Lon Chaney and Marlon Brando had a baby.
In Black Mass he plays the notorious Irish gangster James “Whitey” Bulger and does so with a far more reserved menace than we have seen from him in some time. It is an honest performance from Depp but he just couldn’t resist overdoing it with some prosthetics. The piercingly blue contacts and silver hair he sports in the film make him more akin to an Arian vampire than it does to a visual portrayal of Bulger himself and that idea is only reinforced when the lighting in the scenes change and Depp’s pupils refuse to dilate. Okay maybe that is a tad nit-picky but it definitely bothered me in several scenes of the film. It’s a shame too because Depp does really seem to put a lot into this role and outside of that nuance it is a solid performance. It doesn’t hurt that he is surrounded by a cast of excellent actors, most of whom have little to do in their on screen roles. I mean you’re really going to go as far as to cast Benedict Cumberbatch as Bulger’s Senator Brother and then use him as a set piece? While the acting throughout the film is genuine, much of the character development feels too familiar, often not moving past stock character troupes for your average gangster fare. Joel Edgerton gives an emotional performance and brings as much as he can to FBI agent John Connolly, who was Bulger’s ally on the inside, allowing him to give tid-bits of info on rival gangsters for protection from the feds. The problem is really that the character is flatly written as are a lot of the characters in the film. The one actor who I thought shined the most was Rory Cochrane as Steve Flemmi. Although it didn’t seem like there was a ton for the actor to work with he brought a very tortured humanness to the role. I always felt bad for him in every scene of the film; a man tortured with guilt but trapped by his inability to move passed the world he grew up in.
Cooper’s direction seems focused, even when it relies a little too heavily on his hours clocking Scorsese and Coppola flicks. So it’s fairly well directed and the acting is strong; what’s the issue? The biggest failing in the film is in its script and the fact that it doesn’t really take any chances. Sure it creates a believable enough world and highlights some of the ugliness that Bulger displayed in the 70’s and 80’s in South Boston but it does it in ways we’ve already seen. Again most of the characters are one dimensional and the film seems to rely too much on the violence it characters exhibit to entertain its audience, than it does with artistry and creativity.
So is it a horrible film? No not by any means, but considering the cast and subject matter you would expect a lot more. It’s good to see Depp move away from his recent fare to deliver a more realistic character with some of that punch we haven’t seen in a long time, but it’s just not quite enough to make this a great film. If you are hell bent on checking it out, I’d wait till it was available on demand or at your local rental store (assuming you still have one near you).