On the surface, Black Mass appears to have all of the necessary ingredients that would make for a fantastic film. You have the acting from people like Johnny Depp and Benedict Cumberbatch, a controversial story based on actual events and the right mix of players at the center of it all to build on all of the conflicts from the beginning. However, these components don’t always make for good stuff. It often comes down to who’s behind the camera.
With Johnny Depp starring as James “Whitey” Bulger, we take a look at a run of crime that lasted for decades. While he started out as a common street thug, Bulger became so much more due in large part to John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), an FBI Agent with roots from the very same neighborhood as the crime boss. At first, their collaboration was supposed to be a professional one that was only pieced together to eliminate the Italian mafia, but the alliance between the two former neighbors turned out to be an unholy one that proved to be greater than the loyalty Connolly was supposed to have to his agency and the city that he swore to protect.
Black Mass is shown to us in a series of flashbacks as we here about what really happened from the men who could be considered Bulger’s closest allies during his run as Boston’s most dangerous criminal. Due to this, the movie jumps to certain points beginning in 1975 then to 1981 and so on. This could have harmed the film, but it’s handled properly and works well enough to make it seem as if the story being told hit all of the important points.
If you know the story about “Whitey” Bulger, you’ll probably know better than that and catch on to some of the inaccuracies that are present. It’s hard to miss them if you know what supposed to be happening, but others won’t be able to see these issues. Either way, many of these events and characters are left out or altered purposely in order to tell the story in a smoother way while also getting Depp more screen time since he’s in a couple of scenes that he actually shouldn’t be in.
Since this movie spans a number of years, it’s expected that these guys would eventually show their age. While that does happen, it’s not convincing at all. As a matter of fact, I don’t remember “Whitey” aging through this entire movie that spans over twenty years. Connolly and Billy Bulger (Benedict Cumberbatch) show some age, but that comes at the very end. It’s as if they woke up one day and got old. I don’t know if you guys realize this, but that’s not how real life works since aging is a gradual process.
Aside from the ridiculous aging process, the other issue is that nothing ever turns Black Mass into an engaging film. There’s an amazing amount of material at their disposal here, so they should have been able to rely on that more than they actually do. The biggest reason why it doesn’t do as well as it should is the lack of connectivity between the characters. This could have been corrected by building the relationships between these guys.
As you’ll notice for yourself, the film keeps viewers at a distance throughout its entire duration. What I mean is that we get to see the heinous acts and deeds of Bulger and his associates, but the emotions and connections are absent. Taking the time to build these relationships in a way that properly illustrate the bonds between these people would have done enough to do get us emotionally invested.
This would have also helped had the movie done more to explore Bulger’s alliances with people like his brother Billy and Connolly, the FBI Agent who helped turn him into one of America’s deadliest criminals at the time. While these are obviously included, having all of it take on more meaning for those of us watching would have made for a more impactful experience. Regardless if they’re good or bad, you want their feelings to come across better. There’s no doubt in my mind that this would have helped achieve that.
With this being what keeps Black Mass from being spectacular, one has to place blame at the feet of Scott Cooper. Since he’s the director, he’s charge of all of this. Maybe there’s a story in there that was left out of the final cut, but it needed to be included. That would have stretched out the run time, but I would rather have a longer film than an incomplete one that ends up being shallow and lacking the depth that it should have.
Ultimately, Black Mass turns out to be a decent picture that leaves you wanting more. While it does get better as it goes along, it should have had that kind of quality from the beginning. Delving into the relationships more than they do and adding overall depth would have done that. Because this doesn’t seem to be very important to the filmmakers, we’re left with something that misses out on an opportunity to be special from a purely cinematic standpoint.
Director: Scott Cooper
W. Earl Brown
Film Length: 122 minutes
Release Date: September 18, 2015
Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures