“It’s not what you do, it’s when and where you do it, and who you do it to or with.”
When will film distributors learn to stop selling us scenes in trailers that never make their way into the movies? That’s why I have stopped watching the previews altogether, standing outside the theater doors until I hear the movie start (weird, I know). The great Gene Siskel practiced the same habit, and it makes sense. Let the final product form your opinion instead of the sales pitch. Black Mass is sold as a kinetically charged gangster docudrama, backed by thumping rap anthems and a fast pace. That’s not what we get. Whoever edited the trailer did a better job than the film itself, presenting a criminal world with a brisk gait rather than an exhausting, at times disruptively tiring march with folded arms. Many of the trailer’s memorable pieces don’t even find their way into the final picture. There’s a reason for that though, a trap most films in this genre descend into. How do you make people like a movie about a murderous bad guy? That is the struggle. It’s been done, but it’s difficult, and Black Mass is so hollow, so poorly directed, that you sense the talented and deep cast journeys through a black hole, just to find an abysmal story at the other end. A black mass indeed.
James ‘Whitey’ Bulger (Johnny Depp) is a Southie boy through and through, pledging allegiance not to the flag, but to the harbors and streets and blood-stained back alleys of Boston. If only the film had been as honorable. One of the major structural issues with Black Mass, compounded by the bleak shooting style of director Scott Cooper, is that we know the collapse is imminent. This is a sand castle, all detailed and tall with crowds forming around, soon to be washed away by its own slowly encroaching current of dread and guilt and betrayal. Cooper is never sure how he wants to frame Bulger or how we should perceive him. Is he a sociopathic murderer? Is he a deadly dueling “businessman.” We don’t know, and over the course of his rise and fall we aren’t given a hint at his underlying drive or ambition to strive for more; to never settle for less.
Black Mass is photographed like a barren yet populated landscape of South Boston from 1975-85, covering the years where Bulger really left his mark on the criminal landscape. This isn’t his story though. The majority of the narrative runs through John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), a childhood friend of Bulger and a FBI Agent willing to do anything to climb the ranks. There is a duality between the two, a devil with two faces as their roads merge into one, which could have made for an engaging film. The treacherous side-plots though…they are aplenty. Problems with Bulger’s Senator brother (Benedict Cumberbatch). The loss of a child with his wife (Dakota Johnson). A handful of murders. The Winter Hill gang’s turf war with the Anguilo Brothers. Always by his side are his brainwashed enforcers to carry out his bidding. There is too much going on here, and from the wide array of takes on the accent, every actor doing their best Southie impression, it’s fairly obvious there was no motion to really find a thematic glue. It all sticks together in one big, fat, forgettable lump. Somewhere in there is Depp in one of his best roles in years, but it’s lost to the massive ensemble.
All you have to do is dissect one early scene to discover what the film is about at its center, and why it misses the mark. Bulger sits at the breakfast table with his wife and their son. At the suggestion of his mom, their child says he got in trouble at school for punching a classmate in the face. The life lesson? He got in trouble for one reason; “If nobody sees it, it didn’t happen.” And neither do the most important parts of Black Mass. That roughly 2 minute scene alone has more than 10 distinct camera shots (i.e. distances and angles) that never come together. And while Depp shines in a sheeny role apparently decorated by a mortician, strolling from frame to frame like a product of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, it’s hard to ever take seriously. Cooper makes the film with the correct recipes but forgets any of the salt. Although he’s been called an actor-friendly director, this is anything but. The camera is constantly behind Depp’s shoulder, showing us the expressive reactions of his enemies rather than the inciting actions causing the display. Which, for what it’s worth, gives some spotlight moments to the supporting cast. But when an actor gives a tour de force performance, you don’t box him into a corner; you make us look him dead in the eye. Black Mass is a poorly plotted, desperately directed mess with little to no emotional weight.
“It wasn’t always easy to tell who was who.”
Rating: 2.5 out of 5