It’s hard to remember at this point, but there was a time when the prospect of Johnny Depp being in a movie filled me with excitement, rather than trepidation. Depp is (or maybe was? I’m not sure anymore) a great actor, with the ability to really inhabit his characters, and he’s done a lot of great movies. But the terrible quality of his recent performances, and the fact that his longtime partner Tim Burton, recovered almost immediately upon working without him, have piled up to the point where I almost wince upon seeing him in a trailer.
Still, the trailer for Black Mass had my attention, if not necessarily my faith. Depp’s biopics (Ed Wood in particular) have always been among his better films, it’s an interesting enough subject and he seemed to be reasonably restrained in the trailers (plus? No stupid hat). So I’m willing to give Depp another chance, even if he’s rapidly running out of chances.
Black Mass frames itself as a biopic of infamous Bostonian gangster James “Whitey” Bulger (Depp) but is also heavily focused on his childhood friend and FBI Agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton). Bulger is a low level, but steadily rising thug, leading a gang in South Boston’s slums, but his increasing success makes him a target of the Italian mafia, based out of North Boston.
In order to bring them down without being directly involved, Bulger begins informing on them to the FBI via Connolly. Connolly in turn is forced to cover for Bulger’s increasingly violent and erratic behavior as he rises from small-time thug to kingpin, even as Connolly himself begins to get more and more corrupt.
The big question hanging over the entire movie is how Johnny Depp’s performance is. And…it’s good. He’s good. His performance is restrained, appropriately intense at times and his accent isn’t overpowering or silly. It’s actually fairly impressive, as there were a lot of ways this performance could have gone South, many of which cater to…let’s say, Depp’s weaknesses. So while Depp’s conviction to actor jail may not be overturned yet, we’re thinking about parole (although he does still have a Kevin Smith movie to do).
The rest of the actors are mostly good, especially Edgerton as Connolly, even while many of them begin to stumble into exaggerated Bostonian accents, which can get distracting. Edgerton is actually tasked with holding up huge chunks of the plot, to the point where, under different circumstances, he could actually be considered the lead, although he also gets solid backup from David Harbour in his…I don’t want to call it a subplot…sideplot? Also good is Benedict Cumberbatch, as Whitey’s older brother Billy, although not quite good enough to overcome how overhyped Cumberbatch has been to me, but it’s nice to see him doing well.
The direction is overall pretty well done. This is the third movie from Scott Cooper (who, most notably, got Jeff Bridges his Oscar for Crazy Heart a few years back) and while he’s clearly still settling into his style, he’s got a good sense of how to tell a story. There some nice work with light and shadows here and there, and a good sense of how to pace out some of the quieter scenes. There’s not much in the way of action beats, but it also handles its handful of violent scenes pretty well.
The script is also pretty solid. I’m not going to claim it’s Oscar worthy or anything (it begins to wander into unsubtle territory pretty regularly) but it’s all pretty well written. It manages to differentiate between character voices and moves at a good clip. The script just has one major issue. It doesn’t have, what you’d call, a plot. The movie’s summary plays out like an extended read of Whitey Bulger’s wikipedia profile, a series of events without much in the way of connectivity.
This seems to be born of two conflicting desires in the film, one to be a straightforward biopic of Bulger himself and the other to, you know, have a plot. The obvious choice seems to be to focus the movie around John Connolly, as he’s the one whose got the inbuilt character arc (his gradual corruption and fall fro m grace), but Bulger is so famous that he ate up the entire project. You could probably find a working plot arc for Bulger himself, but there’s no attempt to dig out a character arc, or even much of a rising action out of Bulger’s story. The movie winds up just a series of loosely connected events, shown in more or less chronological order.
It’s a credit to the directing and acting that, even absent a proper plot to follow, the movie remains reasonably compelling, at least while you’re watching it. It might fade from memory, or lack much in the way of an impact on you in the long run, but it keeps your interest. And really, compared to a lot of movies from this year, or even just Johnny Depp’s recent filmography, that’s sparkling.
Elessar is a 25 year old Alaskan born cinephile and the fact that Whitey Bulger tried to embezzle money from Jai Alai is something you just cannot make up.
– mostly well acted
– good direction
– solid dialogue
– no real plot
– awkwardly paced
– feels a bit overlong