Telling the story of the criminal rise of Boston kingpin James ‘Whitey’ Bulger, Black Mass struggles to ever really rise off of the ground. Following his movements and progressions within the South Boston underworld, we spend two decades with Bulger and the rest of the Winter Hill Gang. Everything is loosely told through the recollections of Bulger’s friends, colleagues and fellow criminals as they testify against him begrudgingly. Opening with the end of Goodfellas, if you will, characters are keen to remind us they’re not “rats”. Whitey’s brother, a high flying senator, adds another somewhat thin layer to Black Mass – with both brothers, refusing to get involved in the other’s business. Although their professions and mindsets are vastly different, both men are successful in what they do. At the centre of the story is FBI agent John Connolly, a childhood friend to both brothers keen to make his connections work to his advantage. Connolly hires Whitey as an informant with the intent of bringing down a rival mafia group that threatens Whitey’s turf and the city’s well-being. Working together with one common goal in mind both men climb ladders in their opposing fields until they start to find themselves out of their depths. For a movie about informants there isn’t much to be seen in regards to rivalry, betrayal or, when you think about it, actually informing. Black Mass lacks all the guts and gusto of the gangster greats, and instead replaces it with vast quantities of violence and constant reminders that its lead character is supposed to be a psychopath.
After his career steadily plummeted into an unrespectable cycle of franchise sequels and lazy Tim Burton projects, there was a buzz around Johnny Depp and his performance in Black Mass. Was this to be a galant, intense return to prior form for the actor whose talents have been primarily wasted over the last decade? It might not be the performance or character we’d hoped for but at least Depp’s actually trying here which has certainly become a rarity in his contemporary portfolio. When I think of the greatest gangster roles I think of De Niro’s Sam Rothstein and Al Pacino’s Lefty, men to fear but men to feel for. It’s hard to feel anything for Bulger – a psychopathic caricature who only has two levels, sinister and bloodthirsty. It’s not really Depp’s fault, the writing is pretty poor letting down the whole cast. The star of the show is Joel Edgerton who brings us an unethical FBI agent dripping in slime, contorting back and forth for his own gain. He’s a slippery snake who it’s enjoyable to watch slither around the truth in an attempt to avoid consequences. Black Mass is bland and dull – the greatest cinematic sin of all, according to Frank Capra. It lacks vital tension, suspense, empathy and depth – you’d probably be better off glancing over the Whitey Bulger Wikipedia page which may well contain more excitement. Black Mass tries to be gritty and chilling but with no sincerity of character the whole thing leaves a rather artificial taste in the mouth.
Thanks for reading and let’s all keep supporting our beloved film industry.