Gangster films will never die. From 1932’s Scarface to this year’s Black Mass, outlaws have reigned on the silver screen, and in recent years, the small screen too. Breaking Bad became one of television’s highly praised TV series and that’s because of the rise of the anti-hero. There probably hasn’t been a better time to bring a monumental figure of real life crime to the big screen. Most audiences would know James “Whitey” Bulger from Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of a mobster that resembled “Whitey”, in The Departed. And thankfully, Johnny Depp brings something different to the role; unfortunately, it’s not complimented by the majority of the work in Black Mass.
Depp stars as Bulger, the magnetic and terrifying mobster at the heart of South Boston. He reigns the streets with his cronies and does it with force. Various scenes of violence and terror pervade themselves throughout the movie. Characters pop up throughout the film to give their two cents on the ongoings of the crew. The film goes through the motions of the rise, and eventual fall of Bulger and his criminal organization, and that’s all it really does in the grand scheme of things. Black Mass lacks the originality of the more successful films in the genre and that is its ultimate downfall.
If there is something I can praise, it’s the amazing cast. Between Joel Edgerton, Julianne Nicholson, Corey Stoll, and I could go on; Black Mass has more than capable actors to hold the movie on their shoulders, and that’s what it does. Director Scott Cooper focuses on the ability of the performers to elevate a scene into something with real depth, something the screenplay severely lacks. If Depp wasn’t as talented as he was, Bulger would just walk around with dull line readings and an albino make-up job. We’re all lucky that’s not the case. While Depp can be attributed to putting on make-up and changing his voice a little, his performance here helps him come across as a real person.
With media that is based on a true story, writers often feel indebted to stay as close to the material as possible, and that definitely feels true here. The script never wants to add anything to the real events of the film. Characters are introduced as if they’re about to tell their version of the events. Jesse Plemons is introduced to the audience as our audience surrogate for the movie to abandon his viewpoint and move on to another. By the halfway point of the film, all viewpoints are abandoned, in fact, we don’t see certain characters again until the very end of the film to fill us in on their whereabouts.
If there is a place that deserves true praise, it’s the cinematography from Masanobu Takayanagi. Grey’s have never looked so pretty as they have here. While he will be known for his extraordinary camera work on 2012’s The Grey, Takayanagi should be a name we keep an eye on from here on out. Junkie XL’s score doesn’t match the beauty of his Mad Max: Fury Road score (for obvious reasons), but it shows competent work on a small scale drama.
One of the biggest weaknesses of the film may come from its director, Scott Cooper. Known for directing Jeff Bridges to his only Academy Award for Crazy Heart, and the financially disappointing, Out of the Furnace, Cooper looks to give the film a lived in feel with a true sense of community, a trait he has given his films of the past. Lacking the intimacy of Crazy Heart, Cooper has to rely on his ensemble cast to work the film into something worth watching, which as I’ve said before, doesn’t entirely work. What Black Mass is truly missing is a narrative focus. There isn’t a character to direct an audience into the story, or a particular plot line to care about.
Black Mass lives and dies by its cast. Without Depp and gang, the feature would quite possibly still be a script on the desk of a Hollywood executive. It’s beautifully visualized and scored, yet still feels entirely empty. When there is a truly unique story to tell (and it’s hardly arguable that Whitey Bulger’s story wouldn’t be), audiences will show up and be entranced. Unfortunately, Black Mass really doesn’t have anything to offer that we haven’t seen before, but it should.