It’s pretty hard to go about making a film about Whitey Bulger, because how do you make it not like every other sub-Scorsese, heated-up-bullshit gangster movie? All the basic elements of the Whitey Bulger story – corrupt feds, brother on the other side of the law, paranoiac crime lord – are well-worn clichés in the cinematic medium. Black Mass seems like it might be onto something from the looks of star, Johnny Depp. He’s done up in grotesque, utterly-unrealistic Lon-Chaney-in-London-After-Midnight makeup, so just maybe this is going to be the gangster movie as an old school Hollywood monster movie type thing. Except, nope, it’s just another heated-up-bullshit gangster movie.
It took a while for me to recognise Black Mass’s mediocrity. There’s plenty of Universal monster movie potential in the opening minutes, except spliced together with an old school Cagney vibe. Everything’s so fake-looking and sounding; you’ve got Benedict Cumberbatch – fucking Benedict Cumberbatch of all people! – busting out what’s supposed to be a Boston accent, and everyone’s dressed to the nines in what look just like ‘70s period costumes, complete with fake-looking moustaches. (Adam Scott looks like he’s doing another Greatest Event in Television History bit.)
Depp looks genuinely unearthly as Whitey – he prefers “Jimmy” – Bulger, shot with hard light that turns his eye sockets into hollow pits. I spent the first act in a state of arrested anticipation, assuming that this fakeness was carefully cultivated by director Scott Cooper to provide a sort of commentary on the gangster myth, to reconstruct the rise-fall story as a contemporary fable à la Frankenstein. (Look, it’s not the most insightful idea ever, but it would’ve been something.) But as the story bounces around through a series of stodgy, misguided decisions, it became clear what Black Mass really was: yet another sleekly empty biopic, strip-mining Wikipedia for plot points but finding nothing of substance to say.
There’s no real story here to compensate for the lack of style; there’s just a cobbled-together collection of historical facts that are intended, I guess, to cohere into some sort of meaningful portrait. The narrative spans ten years but largely consists of a sequence of indistinguishable murders, Bulger killing off anyone he doubted with the implicit – and eventually explicit – permission of FBI buddy John Connolly (Joel Edgerton). Nothing comes together at all. The elongated timeline necessitates clumsy dialogue – lots of faaaahking exposition – and a whole lot of other terrible decisions besides. Why is the film introduced as the story of Kevin Weeks (Jesse Plemons) when he’s never relevant to the plot? Why is there an extended detour into an IRA arms shipment in a film that’s already over two hours long? How did all this stuff make the cut when Sienna Miller’s scenes did not? I sure as hell don’t have answers to those questions.
The only halfway compelling narrative thread is that of Edgerton’s inept FBI agent, who somehow gets away with an entirely shady ‘alliance’ for a decade despite blurting out incriminating information the second he’s under any kind of pressure. It’s another clichéd storyline, but it’s salvaged somewhat by Edgerton’s solid performance; not many actors could make dialogue this clunky work. Julianne Nicholson is sidelined – as always – as Edgerton’s wife and – as always – she’s the best thing about the movie. (Someone give this woman a lead role already!)
Depp apparently is getting Oscar buzz for this role, and I’m not really sure why. It’s not a bad performance per se, but it’s just not at all interesting. The atmosphere of menace that the role calls for never quite accumulates … I actually found myself wishing he would camp it up a bit, because his mostly-serious dialogue delivery suffers under all that silly makeup. There are glimpses of what could’ve been in his better scenes, admittedly. When he threatens Calloway’s partner over dinner – in a clumsy twist on Goodfellas’ “I’m funny how” scene – it gives you a sense that there maybe could have been a great performance here if he’d been given a great screenplay. But, alas, it seems great Johnny Depp performances are behind us.
Still, at least you can say that Depp is making this film better than it would have been without him, which is a rare feat nowadays. Not rare enough for me to recommend you do anything but skip Black Mass, though. Wait another twenty years – maybe someone will make a good Whitey Bulger film by then.