The Mancunion

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Review: Black Mass

Black Mass is a derivative and unexceptional gangster flick that is elevated by strong performances from Johnny Depp and Joel Edgerton

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On the surface, Black Mass could crudely be labelled a film that has been catered as a comeback role for Johnny Depp. The actor portrays a true-life figure, Jimmy ‘Whitey’ Bulger, the most infamous criminal in the history of South Boston, (who also happened to be an FBI informant). It is no secret that the actor’s career has been stuck in the slumps for the best part of a decade, with his last Oscar nomination coming in 2008 for Sweeney Todd. Indeed, his last performance of any real note was way back in 2009, as John Dillinger in Michael Mann’s underrated Public Enemies. Since then, his roles have varied, ranging from forgettable Tim Burton collaborations—see Dark Shadows (or rather don’t)—to simply offensive white-washing in the Lone Ranger. That’s without mentioning this year’s highly misjudged Mortdecai. Remember that one? Me neither. If anybody needs a renaissance, it’s Depp.

The bad news is that this may be a performance to savour for the considerable future, because Depp’s upcoming projects don’t inspire much excitement. There’s another Pirates film to endure and a sequel to Alice in Wonderland that nobody asked for. The good news is that Depp, at least in this film, is operating at the highest level. Despite its flaws, Black Mass nevertheless provides a telling reminder of the talents that Depp possesses. Hidden behind the piercing contact lenses and bleached slicked-back hair, which at times can become rather distracting, Depp is unrecognisable. He oozes creepiness and terror to a nauseating extent. Evidently, when Depp is given material that challenges him and when he is not allowed to simply act out eccentricities, he remains an actor who can truly ignite the screen.

The director, Scott Cooper, has yet to find a signature style of his own, and is far too reliant on superior auteurs, whom he mimics. He does, however, have a clear talent for showcasing the darker side of characters. In any scene involving Bulger, Cooper lets the tension ratchet up to white-knuckle level, allowing Depp to leave the audience reeling in anticipation for either a cacophony of violence, or simply a cackling laugh.

As a recount of history and factual events, the film does a fine job, but there is a longing for more in the way of substance. There needs to be a reason to engage in such a despicable character, which begs the question: Are we meant to sympathise with Bulger? The script does its best to try to paint Bulger as a three dimensional person. Alongside his terrible crimes, he is also shown to be a caring father and a loving son. But Bulger’s motives are never truly explored and he unfortunately does not progress enough, coming across as nothing more than a one note maniac. A more fascinating film may have been constructed from following Bulger on the run as a fugitive, and the subsequent hunt for his whereabouts, from the perspective of the team on his tail.

The supporting cast of the film deserve acknowledgment as well. In particular, Joel Edgerton does great work as corrupt FBI agent John Connolly. In fact, his character provides the film with its most compelling arc. He plays Connolly as an almost-dim cop who has a child-like infatuation with Bulger, which allows him to be manipulated with ease. The movie’s greatest pleasures lie in this examination of how the lines between cops and criminals can become so easily blurred. Ultimately, Black Mass is a middling effort that doesn’t really do enough to distinguish itself from the mainstays of the gangster genre.

3/5

  • Lucky Alexander

    It surprises me when people see the work Johnny Depp accomplishes and they are breathless over it. As far as I’m concerned, there have been a couple of unfortunate choices he’s made, but in terms of the entertainment he’s brought to his audience, he’s pretty much always spot on. For some, the Pirates franchise didn’t work for them, but maybe when he made those movies, he didn’t have you in mind. And in one or two instances, the story failed, but his performance didn’t. Ultimately, as an actor, he delivers all that he has and can’t please everyone all the time. To paraphrase Abe Lincoln…you can please some of the people some of the time, most of the people most of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time. He’s an actor, but in Black Mass…he’s a magician. He’s been at this for 30+ years…time for an Oscar.

    • Imran Bukhari

      Just wanted to make it clear that I am a big fan of Depp and admire the majority of his roles. I believe when he dials it down and gives more sincere performances he is an incredible actor, Donnie Brasco, Finding Neverland, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape etc. However when you say a ‘couple’ of unfortunate choices you are talking about easily 10 films since 2010. I agree with you that Depp does give his everything but that doesn’t stop all those films from being bad and you start to question whether he does actually read the scripts. In regards to the Pirates franchise, there is no doubt that Jack Sparrow is a fantastic creation and the Curse of the Black Pearl is a brilliant film, I even enjoyed the second and third films despite there over-long plot lines, but the last one was simply just a cash grab both by the producers and by Depp with his 35 mill pay check. In terms of an Oscar, I’m sure he’ll eventually get one but not this year, most likely going to another overdue actor, Leonardo DiCaprio.

      • Lucky Alexander

        Okay…first of all, when I said,”you” I was meaning the collective ‘you’ and not you personally. Secondly, do you really think he’s had 10 fails since 2010? I happened to have liked Dark Shadows and the Lone Ranger and yes, Mortdecai. See? Not every movie is for everyone and it’s nice we can disagree w/o taking it personally. I do agree with you that perhaps Pirates 4 should’ve not happened and I can’t imagine what’s going to happen in Pirates 5. Hopefully, Jack Sparrow will find his horizon and not return or we are likely to see a 68 y/o pirate on the yardarm…like Rocky and Creed 16 years from now. I like to look for relationships in films…does the character form any relationships, is he true to them, true to himself, is he likeable. Looking for those things in a film. any film but especially Depp’s films make viewing more worthwhile. And as for DiCaprio…he should’ve gotten the Oscar for Gilbert Grape, and he is fantastic, but he’s no Johnny Depp, imo.

        • Imran Bukhari

          Yeah I do unfortunately, everything from Alice in Wonderland to Mortdecai I disliked, but I respect your opinion and you are fully entitled to like those films. I guess that’s the main disagreement we have though, in that I would consider DiCaprio to be a better actor than Depp. Just like Depp, DiCaprio does give his all in every film, but they are also good films in my opinion. DiCaprio is more selective over what he stars in and works with only the highest quality directors/writers. Quality over quantity.

          • Lucky Alexander

            Ummmm…Titanic? Sentimental and sappy. I like DiCaprio but IMHO he is the matinee idol type and sticks with the good writers and directors because that way, he can’t miss. An actor who works for the thrill of expansion will take a chance on something that might or not ‘make it’ at the box office. Perhaps it’s the thrill of the unknown rather than the safety of the ‘can’t miss’. It’s the roller coaster ride not the merry go ’round I like. And I know I’m going out on a limb here, but the cameo Johnny did in Lucky Them and his Guy LaPointe were really exceptional.

            • Imran Bukhari

              That’s an interesting angle you have there and I do like that about Depp that he’s unafraid to take risks. But I would argue that even though it’s easy to say that DiCaprio makes safe choices by working with great directors, the material he works with however is far from safe. Playing a coke fuelled and greed driven broker in Wolf of Wall Street, a heinously racist slave owner in Django Unchained… These are just a few examples of how risky the characters are that he’s played. Yes he was the pin up for teenage girls everywhere back in Titanic days, (may I add so was Depp at the start of his career), but you only have to look at the trailer for the Revenant to see how far he has come since then.

            • Lucky Alexander

              Well, it seems to me that we will forever be in a Mexican Standoff on this topic. It’s like arguing which pie is better…key lime or coconut cream. Just a parting shot…did you see The Libertine? An earlier film but so unsung it’s criminal. I just think it’s easy to play a contemptible character who is contemptible rather than a flawed character who has redeeming qualities.

            • Imran Bukhari

              Haha yeah I think we should just agree to disagree, thoroughly enjoyed the discussion though! I’ve not see The Libertine no but thanks for the recommendation. Also if you’re looking for a flawed character with redeemable qualities, check out Blood Diamond, my personal favourite DiCaprio performance. (Also I’m not much of a pie lover).

            • Lucky Alexander

              Awww, come on…if you won’t try to see my point, then there is no hope for us. And I bet if you did like pie, you’d choose the key lime…wouldn’t you Blanche? TA-TA for now!