Director: Scott Cooper
Starring: Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dakota Johnson
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Synopsis: The true story of Whitey Bulger, the brother of a state senator and the most infamous violent criminal in the history of South Boston, who became an FBI informant to take down a Mafia family invading his turf.
Black Mass has a “Whitey” problem. Johnny Depp has worn many hats, and now he is a gangster, too, again. Though he’s as serious in this role as he’s been in years, he looks ridiculous. Hideous. He’s like a cross between Mr. Burns and Nosferatu. The role isn’t much better than it looks. We’re with Bulger through his days as a stool pigeon for the FBI, working to rid South Boston of the Angiulo’s—an Italian mafia running Southie in the 1970s. Bulger gives up info and in return the FBI turns a blind eye to his organization. With help from his brother (Benedict Cumberbatch), who happens to be a state senator, and an old friend, John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), who is an agent with the Bureau, Bulger is able to keep his operation under wraps and humming along for years.
As a biopic, Black Mass is one of the worst. Bulger’s life is illustrated in the laziest ways. Big life events are pared down to a scene, and sometimes a sentence. We see Bulger arguing with his girlfriend (a hapless Dakota Johnson) over pulling the plug on his all but dead son. A disease has left him brain dead. Bulger’s moralizing calls for some in return. His girlfriend argues: how can a psychopathic murderer moralize about anything? This is insinuated, of course, in the politest dialogue possible. It’s a solid rebuttal, however. It’s said in voice over Bulger was “never the same” after he lost his mother. I’d wager he’d have turned out the same losing his wallet. Too much energy is put into spinning Lifetime yarns about Bulger’s soft side. It makes Black Mass about as humorless as Yom Kippur.
Black Mass doesn’t have to be Goodfellas, (good luck trying), But it could’ve aimed for The Departed. Good humor has been going steady with gangster movies since the ‘80s. It’s become almost a necessary element. A good laugh cuts the sadism. Besides, the straight face doesn’t equal realism. This is still a Hollywood production. Italian filmmaker Matteo Garrone stripped away most romantic elements in his 2008 gangster film, Gomorrah. Director Scott Cooper takes Black Mass nowhere near Garrone’s deadpan gangster flick, and leaves it far behind the entertainment value of any number of American classics.
The saving grace is Joel Edgerton’s work as John Connolly. Unlike how I felt after Edgerton’s self-starred in thriller, The Gift, I thank the lord for Edgerton’s work in Black Mass. It’s masterful. I liked The Gift, but here Edgerton is subtler and more invested than I’ve ever seen him before. Just the way he squirms through every meeting with his team (filled out by a crispy Kevin Bacon, a mustachioed Adam Scott, and David Harbour), ensuring Bulger’s success, because it means a bigger house and some finer suits for himself. Watching him bribe a fellow agent with Red Sox tickets—Clemens on the mound, no less—is a thing of beauty. Even if this movie wants to suck—part of me believes this to be its aim—it couldn’t, all thanks to Edgerton.