Let me kick things off with the story behind Black Mass. Johnny Depp stars as James ‘Whitey’ Bulger (in the UK, not a great name) who was (is?) the most infamous violent criminal in South Boston. Bulger was also an FBI informant which, in the movie at least, comes about because someone he grew up with works at the FBI, and approaches him about becoming an informant in order to take down the Mafia in the area who are encroaching on his turf.
What I’m not going to do in this review is look at how much of the movie is true or otherwise made-up. I’m a bit sick of doing that for films when the general consensus is: it’s based on truth but we’ve added bits in or ignored bits for the sake of the film. i.e. in this particular case, Bulger apparently always denies he was an FBI informant.
Firstly the performances, Johnny Depp is mesmerizing as Bulger. The physical transformation, the make-up, those eyes, is quite astonishing. Depp comes across as freaky, menacing, a psychopath. What I didn’t feel was scared, but I’m not sure if that was entirely Depp’s fault (see below).
Joel Edgerton (The Great Gatsby, Zero Dark Thirty) plays John Connolly, Bulger’s childhood friend who is now in the FBI. He’s bullish, as these people always seem to be, and does remarkably well out of protecting Bulger who, with no Mafia to stop him, takes over South Boston.
Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock, The Imitation Game) plays Bulger’s brother Billy who is a State Senator who keeps out of his brothers ‘work’, at least in the film. You also have David Harbour (The Newsroom, The Equalizer) as John Morris who works alongside Edgerton at the FBI and ends up getting in too deep.
All of these performances are great, everyone plays their parts well. Kevin Bacon has a small part and is great, Jesse Plemons (Breaking Bad, Battleship) is great, Peter Sarsgaard, Rory Cochrane, the list goes on. All very good performances.
However, what’s not great is the story, or is it the writing? I’m not sure. You see it’s based on the book (aren’t they always?) by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill which I haven’t read. So I’m unsure if story or script are at fault, but whichever, the pacing is slow, there almost seems to be a lack of direction to the film. We know what’s going to happen, it’s a true story (based on!) and starts with informants telling on Bulger so…spoiler much?
Mark Mallouk (producer of Rush and Everest) and Jez Butterworth (Edge of Tomorrow, Spectre) are the writers with Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart, Out of the Furnace) on directorial duties. But things just don’t seem to have clicked between them. There’s no sense of urgency from anyone to do anything about the murders or drugs or anything much. You see so little of the Mafia who are apparently encroaching you wonder if they exist at all. Some characters are setup to have large parts and then vanish, others drop in and out without much rhyme or reason. I did wonder, part way through the film, what was left on the cutting room floor, maybe that was the problem?
This should have been a great film, it had the cast and (surely) the story to be this generations Goodfellas, maybe not quite that level but you know what I mean. Instead it’s all a bit forgettable, which is a crying shame.