There’s a tendency, while watching Johnny Depp mistake mannered tics for method acting in his embodiment of Boston gangster Whitey Bulger, to reduce the supposedly brutal character to yet another eccentric rogue in the actor’s gallery of ridiculously over-the-top characters, from the Mad Hatter to Sweeney Todd – take your pick. Never once did I forget that the actor behind those demonic eyes, rotting teeth and slicked-back, thinning hair was Depp, and that does not bode well for a film where he still emerges as both the creative and entertaining centerpiece. And yet director Scott Cooper’s Black Mass is a sloppy, morose, and deeply flawed mobster movie, in an already overcrowded genre, that inextricably seems to sideline its primary box office draw within a broad, confusing, ensemble drama, that sadly lacks any dramatic tension.
Black Mass wastes no time establishing itself as a second-rate Goodfellas, introducing us to Bulger with a typical Scorsese-esque scene of the villain scolding one of his goons for double dipping his saliva-covered fingers into a bowl of bar peanuts. It’s the kind of scenery chewing that Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro could do in their sleep, but in Depp’s hands it’s clear that Cooper’s dialogue, specifically the repetition of “fat fucking fingers” is supposed to achieve its effect through comparison to greater films instead of its own merit. Then there’s the constantly shifting perspective, to each of Bulger’s underlings, as the story unfolds in flashback while they are all being interrogated by the FBI. Cooper should have picked a person and stayed with them throughout, because as a result a moral center is never allowed to develop, leading Black Mass towards an ending akin to a black hole of criminal behavior, and leaving the audience with nothing to take away.
Eventually Joel Edgerton emerges, one expects, as the chief rival to Bulger. But he’s an ambitious FBI agent who grew up with Whitey and his brother Billy, and who developed a bond that apparently cannot be broken by felonies, as even he soon slips into the vacuum, becoming yet another pathetic, morally vacant character. Black Mass‘ narrative is framed around these three men, following them through two decades of mischief, painting their actions in such broad strokes that there is never any reliable, believable cause and effect. Cooper’s film drifts in and out of moments in history with no set-up or payoff, and the audience is left to fill in the blanks. For example, Cooper will randomly cut to a scene like Edgerton’s boss, an always reliable Kevin Bacon, berating him for spending so much time and money on keeping Bulger as an informant and getting nothing in return, and then drop it like a body in the river chained to a cement block. Black Mass is full of scenes like this, of forced drama, and characters coming to blows, and then nothing. There is never any clear indication of the passing of time in between the title cards announcing five year jumps from 1975 through 1995, and without a rhythm through which to evolve the narrative, scenes like that stick out like pure gangster porn.
Coming off the heels of 2009’s Crazy Heart and 2013’s Out Of The Furnace, both intimate examinations of wounded souls against the roiling backdrop of their respective locales, the southwest and northeast United States, Black Mass, with its incessant namedropping of South Boston landmarks, suggests a continuation of Cooper’s interests in exploring Americana, and shows the director shortening the gap between releases. In this case that’s probably due to the fact that he did not write the screenplay, and while it’s good for a director to distance themselves from the material once in awhile, Cooper is simply the wrong person to carry out the screenwriters’ hackneyed, bum rush job through history. But he does know how to find the emotional center of a scene, and there is no better example of that than the film’s best moment, when Depp goes upstairs to the bedroom to visit Edgerton’s wife (Julianne Nicholson), who is terrified of the people with whom her husband is keeping company, and he rubs his hand all over her face and neck to find out exactly where she is “under the weather,” in a not-so-thinly veiled threat. It is one of the most menacingly original scenes of its kind, masterfully establishing her fear and what she must do next. But there are very few opportunities like this for Cooper to indulge, with the film’s endless barrage of unconnected plot points.
Characters disappear for unacceptably long periods of time as well, while Black Mass explores different events in history. We get pages of narration from one character and then they are not seen again for several reels, leaving the film scattered. Everybody gets their one pivotal scene, but the emotional context is never allowed to develop. And in the end, when title cards describe the fates of the central characters, it’s difficult to care, because ultimately Black Mass does not tell a single human story; it’s just moments pulled from a gangster film checklist and grafted onto supposed real life events, or rather Cooper and company hand select the moments from history that fit these clichés. And as a result Cooper’s film feels entirely manipulated, and that will hurt its chances come Oscar time.
The Verdict: Pan