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Non-Review Review: Black Mass

Black Mass has endearing ambition.

This is an old-school crime biography, one that foregoes clarity or singularity of purpose in favour of sprawling scale. Black Mass covers decades in the life of notorious Boston gangster James “Whitey” Bulger. The thematic throughline is his connection to the local branch of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Agent John Connolly. Connolly grew up with Bulger, and hits on the seemingly ingenious idea of advancing his own career by bringing Bulger into the fold as an “informant.” It is an arrangement that benefits Bulger and Connolly more than the FBI.

Gangbusters...

Gangbusters…

There is an interesting story to be told there, the tale of two men gaming the system for their own advantage. Many of the stories around Bulger are so ridiculous and improbable that they defy belief; they make for perfect cinematic fodder. With two strong lead actors, and a clear arc, the tale of Bulger and Connolly could be compelling and revealing. However, it also seems far too modest for Black Mass. Although Bulger and Connolly form the spine of the film, its limbs sprawl out in every possible direction trying to cover everything.

It is a valiant effort. There are moments when Black Mass really works as it picks on an awkward conversation or a loaded confrontation. However, these moments feel fleeting; they are a chain of short stories rather than a single cohesive narrative. Black Mass is frequently fascinating but seldom satisfying.

Awash with corruption...

Awash with corruption…

Ambition is no bad thing. Black Mass is packed to the gills with fantastic actors delivering powerful and emotive performances. Johnny Depp headlines the cast as Whitey Bulger, with Joel Edgerton playing John Connolly. However, actors like Kevin Bacon, Rory Cochrane, Jesse Plemons, Peter Sarsgaard, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dakota Johnson, Adam Scott, Corey Stoll, Julianne Nicholson, Juno Temple and David Harbour round out the cast. It is a phenomenal ensemble.

However, the ensemble takes its toll of the film, as it seems like the movie gravitates more towards performances than narrative or theme. There are extended tangents that reinforce the core ideas of all crime movies, but which seem to exist purely to justify the cast. There is no real reason for Billy Bulger to have so important a part, but he happens to be played by Benedict Cumberbatch and so the film allows room for his reactions to things the audience already knows. Peter Sarsgaard is great, but his narrative thread could be more efficient.

Let us prey...

Let us prey…

At the same time, seemingly important characters are consigned to thankless roles – squeezed out so that attention can be lavished on the next performer. In particular, Julianne Nicholson and Dakota Johnson are criminally underused in the roles of the wives of the two protagonists. These are roles that should be illuminating and insightful, but ultimately feel stock and rote. The movie only seems to remember that they exist for a moment or two at a time, before its attention drifts elsewhere.

Covering an incredible stretch in the life of “Whitey” Bulger, Black Mass casts an impressively wide net. There are delightful moments of black comedy to be found in the grim true-life story of the mobsters who shrewdly exploited his connections to the local establishment. Black Mass handles these sorts of tonal shifts rather well, transitioning from horrific brutality to quirk detail and back again. Little touches like Bulger’s association with the jai alai fad of the mid-eighties add a sense of cheeky fun to the film.

Whitey heat...

Whitey heat…

These scenic routes are endearing, lingering longer than many of the actual plot beats. An early sequence of “Whitey” explaining his philosophy of the world to his young son is more memorable than a dozen brutal beat-downs or murders or scenes of FBI agents quietly panicking among themselves. Black Mass is a whistle-stop tour through the life of Bulger, but it is the smaller stops that entertain the most. The problem comes in trying to stitch it all together into a cohesive and organic narrative.

At the same time, the movie creaks as it stretches to incorporate absolutely everything. The film resorts to testimony from Bulger’s former lieutenants to provide context for each sequence, in a manner that feels superfluous or distracting. For all that Bulger and Connolly are the twin hearts of the film, they spend extended stretches apart from one another. There is a sense that certain scenes could easily have been taken out and fleshed out to a completely different movie.

Miami Connection...

Miami Connection…

Despite a superb make-up job, Depp does really solid and grounded work as Bulger – his performance helps to carry many of the film’s more familiar and repetitive beats, like a dinner part sequence where Bulger seems to make an effort to threaten everybody in the house. However, his performance is at odds with the cartoonish swagger of Joel Edgerton, who looks like he just stepped out of The Untouchables. There are points at which Edgerton and Cumberbatch struggle to pitch their accents on the right side of caricature.

It isn’t that Black Mass lacks structure. It is very meticulously and carefully structured to include what it considers to be the key beats of Bulger’s criminal life. An extended portion of the first act is dedicated to Bulger’s family life, which builds to a point of maximum tragedy before moving along. The film makes a subtle suggestion that a lot of Bulger’s later excesses can be traced back to that tragedy, feeling perhaps a little simplistic in its depiction of the central character.

Play your cards right...

Play your cards right…

Indeed, it is quite easy to chart the plot and character beats as Black Mass dutifully checks them off one at a time. Families are dissolved by these lives of violent men. The climax of the film juxtaposes a montage of the dismantling of Bulger’s operation with shots of Bulger contemplative in a church, as it seems most crime films must after The Godfather. The film showcases its careful research with a whole host of “where are they now?” title cards imparting trivia about the major players.

Black Mass knows all of the beats it has to hit, and it manages to hit most of them efficiently. The problem is finding a way to fashion those beats into something cohesive or internally consistent. The production is lavish and the individual elements are all impressive; the biggest problem with Black Mass is trying to get all of it to cohere into something.

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4 Responses

  1. I’m not the sort to gripe about these things…. But we’re glorifying the Bulger Bros. We’ve sunk to that level.

    They don’t deserve a film about their exploits. And they don’t really warrant two of the prettiest actors in the cosmos playing them.

    It’s the lamest cash-grab from Hollywood in some time.

    • To be fair, though, Legend glorified the Kray brothers. I think it’s a concern with any crime film. Although I think Depp is sufficiently “uglied up” for his role, at least.

      • Off topic. As an American, the first I heard of the Krays was playing Grand Theft Auto London (yes, that’s a thing) and working for the Crisps. Arthur does all the talking, Archie just stands there and seethes.

        And after you blow up their car, you get an ending cutscene with a smoldering Arthur saying ‘screw this’ and fleeing to Thailand.

        They were hilarious. Rockstar needs to bring the Crisp Twins back ASAP,

      • I was amazed to discover that Rockstar were British. That astounded me when I first found out about it. Then again, I suppose the GTA series is America filtered through the lens of Scorsese/Coppola/Mann. Which may be why I liked it so much, cinephile that I am.

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