Black Mass is in many ways a welcomed departure from the type of movies that Johnny Depp has been making for the past ten years or so. However, even though it does manage to break away from the usual stereotypical casting for quirky roles that Depp has become largely known for, as a movie Black Mass does not manage to tell a particularly compelling story, speak nothing of being anything beyond that of a very mediocre crime flick. It is inherently a flawed product, suffering from lack of strong directorial vision, not having engaging storytelling nor providing any type of proper insight to any of the central characters. It’s in essence entirely watchable, but very shallow movie and does not come even close to matching other, far more successful and better made gangster movies that are based on real life criminals, such as Martin Scorsese‘s brilliant 1990 classic Goodfellas.
I’m a big fan of Scott Cooper’s debut film Crazy Heart, but as Out of the Furnace already proved, while Cooper seems to have a good handle on creating a believable, multilayered worlds that his movies take place in, he does not really seem to be able to take a good premise and hone it until you get a impressive story out of it. It’s great if you can give the world you are telling your story in character, but when that vastly outshines your actual story that you’re telling, that’s a bit of a problem. As it always is with unfulfilled potential, there were plenty of good ingredients here to make a really gripping story, but somewhere along the development process something seems to have gone awry. Instead of a gritty story about a low level Irish-American gangster like James “Whitey” Bulger’s weaseling his way into becoming the top crime boss of Boston by acting as an informer for the FBI and then using the bureau as a way to drive out the rival Italian mob from Boston so that he could steal their territory for himself, you get this peculiar and small scale retelling of one of the FBI’s most embarrassing scandals involving a corrupt FBI agent and Bulger, with sloppy jumps in time, poor character development and not very much substance give to the actual events taking re-enacted.
Given that the movie was based on a book written by the two reporters from the Boston Globe who were behind exposing the crooked informant arrangement between the FBI and Bulger to the public, it’s particularly odd that instead of telling a very detail and an engaging story about Bulger’s ascent to power via his dubious arrangement with the FBI, the movie is instead more interested on focusing on the FBI agent John Connolly’s almost childlike infatuation to become friends with Bulger and how that inherent desire seems to have been the primary reason behind orchestrating Bulger’s deal with the FBI and then spending years protecting Bulger from prosecution while Bulger expanded his empire. Trying to understand Connolly’s motives is certainly a good angle for the story in theory, the trouble is that in the end you never really get a proper inside look at Connolly as a character. Nothing they do in the movie really builds a very clear or even remotely interesting picture about the relationship between Connolly and Bulger. You might argue the fanboy aspect is meant to be so thin and vague, but it doesn’t make the story interesting. It doesn’t help Connolly’s private life is mostly covered by scenes of arguing with his wife and occasionally barbequing and hanging out with Bulger at dinner, without much insight to his actions and personality. This is why you end up with a story that feels very hollow inside, like it was a random a collection of anecdotes revolving around the relationship between Connolly and Bulger without any type of real introspective provided for context and depth.
While seeing Depp play an completely irredeemable criminal is certainly refreshing novelty, his character in the movie ends up being far too one-note to actually become memorable or iconic like some of his other, better known roles such as Jack Sparrow or Edward Scissorhands. A lot of that can be blamed on the poor screenplay that didn’t allow Depp to really do much with his character. There’s only one or two occasions where Johnny is allowed to properly channel the vicious, hard to read monster that you can imagine Bulger was like to terrifying effect. One such scene is when he goes to talk to Connolly’s wife during a dinner party and while he’s seemingly having an innocent conversation about her health, there’s a really disturbing subtext to everything until the very end when it gets a little violent. The other is an extended build up to a murder where Bulger lures a young girl who has had sexual congress with one of his chief lieutenants to an apartment, with the promise to take her to safety a until things cool down and give her money and clothes, etc. and then out of nowhere, while he’s showing her the apartment, he brutally strangles her to death due to the fear that she might talk to the police. It’s during such rare scenes where you get to see a small glimmer of the psychopath that Bulger probably would be like if you met him in real life and they are very chilling experiences. But as great these few isolated scenes are, you wouldn’t want to pay the price of an admission ticket just for that. Or a DVD rental.