Review: Repetitive Violence Makes 'Black Mass' a Tedious Undertaking
by Jeremy Kirk
September 18, 2015
There's little doubt in the current fascination with violence. Hell, there's an argument to be made that we've grown addicted to it. Naturally, Hollywood was going to throw major bucks in the direction of Black Mass, the story of James "Whitey" Bulger, arguably the most notorious and most violent criminal in American organized crime. It's the kind of role that would attract an A-lister like Johnny Depp, whose performance here makes up the film's highest mark. Tediously paced but overall commendably executed, the film serves as a suitable yet surface-level telling of Bulger's story. The violence clearly sets up the walls of this particular house, but it's Depp's performance that makes the interior design of Black Mass worthwhile.
Bulger was an Irish-American crime boss who, during his years on top, turned the city of Boston into a blood-drenched stage for his gang's illegal activities. He threatened, robbed, and even murdered with reckless abandon, and his actions went unpunished for so long due to his connection and friendship with the FBI agent in charge of his case (Joel Edgerton). The fact that Bulger's brother, William (Benedict Cumberbatch), was the president of the Massachusetts State Senate didn't hurt, either.
All through out his violent tenure, Bulger informed for the FBI on his rivals, the Italian-American crime organization that was blossoming in Boston at the time. Yet, while his words helped crack down on the Mafia presence in Boston, his actions created just as much chaos and fear in the city. If you stood in his way, if you informed on him or any of his men to the authorities, or even if Bulger believed you did as much, you were likely to end up somewhere in a ditch. The level of contradiction in Bulger's actions was almost as stunning as the actions themselves.
Beyond the violence and Bulger's contradictory nature there isn't much story being told in Black Mass. Screenwriters Jez Butterworth and Mark Mallouk establish early on just how sadistic Bulger was as well as the incongruity that came from all the ratting going on. If there's one thing Bulger and the men in his gang hate worse than a rat it's being called a rat, and Butterworth and Mallouk's screenplay goes to great lengths in relaying the “rats ratting on rats” message that comes hand-in-hand with crime stories. Put succinctly, there's nothing being said here that The Departed didn't already cover in more effective ways and in Boston, no less.
Cooper's pacing of the film isn't helping these matters much, each of the scenes he offers up falling into one of three or four categories. You have Bulger either performing some act of violence, threatening to perform some act of violence, or acting in such a way that it fills the air of the room with a promise of some act of violence. After the fifth or sixth time he chokes the life out of someone the bloom has long fallen off the rose. Other scenes involve Connolly convincing his superiors that Bulger isn't someone they should be interested in, Connolly and Bulger meeting to sort out just how he is going to do that, and… well, when all else fails, Bulger, and certainly Black Mass, reverts back to the violence option.
These handful of scenes play out on repeat, sometimes throwing in new but similar and definitely interesting, characters. It all wears extremely thin long before Black Mass comes to its conclusion, the film overstaying its welcome in an attempt to make this American crime story something of an epic. Those involved don't do anything with that story, though, besides tell it, the notion of any kind of subtext apparently getting itself choked out by Bulger long before the movie even starts. Cooper executes each scene with such style, though, and all the performances found within hit on such a level that it's easy to see how this good movie could have been great. It's frustrating that it isn't great or, at the very least, better than the surface-level violence it does offer.
What is truly great in Black Mass comes from Depp, who, despite some of his choices in recent years, can still turn on a performance unlike most of his peers. Depp is downright scary at times here, something we haven't quite seen from him before. At other times he pulls off creepy like no one else, something we've seen even less out of him. The glassy, pale contact lenses he wears throughout the film has its own hand in fleshing out the intimidating aura surrounding Bulger. Depp, though, with his cool, calculated line delivery and cold-blooded form of muscle makes the character something more iconic. In a much better film Depp's performance could have made the Whitey Bulger character one for the ages.
Likewise, the supporting performances from everyone involved here are worth mentioning. Edgerton and Cumberbatch are phenomenal despite the lack of sympathy you have for the characters. Rory Cochrane and Jesse Plemons are impressive as members of Bulger's gang, and Kevin Bacon, Adam Scott, and Corey Stoll as the agents trying to stop Bulger are also noteworthy. David Harbour as Connolly's FBI partner is definitely a standout, and Dakota Johnson as the woman in Bulger's life gives a remarkable turn despite having very little to do.
There's no surprise in the performance quality here given the work director Scott Cooper has pulled from the actors he's worked with. Whether it's Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart or Christian Bale in Out of the Furnace, the characters and performances that embody a Scott Cooper film are almost always more interesting than the films themselves. So too is the case with Black Mass, a film that can heartily boast a breathtaking performance from its lead but a film that has little to offer beyond that. Violence in film has grown somewhat prosaic given the amount audiences are subdued to, almost as much as crime movies. Black Mass, while certainly telling a fascinating but true story of one of history's most famous criminals, has very little to say. If it weren't for bullets and blood flying wall-to-wall the film may have nothing to say at all.