Sara Snoddy // Contributing writer
“If nobody sees it, it didn’t happen” is what crime-boss James Whitey Bulger teaches his 6-year-old son in Black Mass. Unfortunately for director Scott Cooper, many people have already seen the countless other gangster movies that his film tries to emulate.
Based on the 2001 book Black Mass: The True Story of an Unholy Alliance Between the FBI and the Irish Mob, written by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill, the film has been called a “return to form” and a “career reviver” for its titular star, Johnny Depp (“Pirates of the Caribbean,” “Public Enemies”).
Is Black Mass Oscar bait? Certainly. Is it a career revival? Barely.
Guided by Dutch composer Junkie XL’s tasteful score, the South Boston biopic glides through the decade between 1975 and ’85 when the legendary “Jimmy” Bulger (Depp) rose from small-time crook to kingpin. He does so while sidelining as a “top echelon informant” for the FBI, a position that keeps his own crimes protected by his childhood friend, FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton).
Bulger’s job, of course, is as much a farce as Depp’s ridiculously obvious bald cap and neon blue contacts.
While he may be depicting a real-life gangster, and one who is still breathing, Depp’s dead-eyed mien resembles a conglomerate caricature that hardly resembles any real human being. In spite of his stellar impersonation of Bulger’s speech patterns, the makeup department dresses him up like a guy trying too hard to impersonate Bulger. And if that wasn’t enough, his appearance is eerily similar to Ray Liotta of Goodfellas fame.
This, coupled with a few stereotypical mob movie scenes, draws a parallel between Black Mass and all of the other trailblazing “bang, bang, shoot ‘em ups.”
Screenwriters Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth seem incapable of crafting secondary roles that aren’t wafer thin, and casting director Francine Maisler clearly suffered from ‘bankable actor syndrome’.
The women of Black Mass are overlooked even more. Jimmy’s wife Lindsey (Dakota Johnson) and his son only humanize him, and Connolly’s wife (Julianne Nicholson) shines brightly for a very uncomfortable, and unintentionally humorous, scene with Bulger that is all too brief.
But the main drawback of the dry film was its inability to establish an emotional core, choosing to virtually ignore the complex and centrally important relationship between Bulger and Connolly, from which the entire film revolves around.
Edgerton and Depp, like the supporting cast, get gypped with roles they can’t sink their teeth into, never fully convincing the audience of their authenticity until the latter half of the film. Originally from Australia, Edgerton did his due diligence on researching his role, choosing to mimic Connolly’s exact Bostonian accent rather than the generic dialect. This attention to detail would be much more appreciated if we able to understand and sympathize with his character.
Some say that utilizing a series of interviews as a narrative structure is a lazy move. In Black Mass, the narrative is not necessarily lazy as it is unoriginal.
Like the film as a whole, it’s good, but not good enough.
To contact Lifestyles editor Rhiannon Gilbert email firstname.lastname@example.org