After a string of cosmic misfires, Johnny Depp has found a silver lining through Black Mass, a gangster biopic that offers a chance to redeem himself.
Luckily for the movie, he delivers a return-to-form performance that will ring up some Oscar buzz. His deftly controlled yet powerful delivery infuses Bulger’s presence with silent foreboding. Even with the obvious contact lenses, you are aware that the slightest mistake can earn any character a spot in his burial ground.
Joel Edgerton stands out from the rest of the supporting cast with a flawless Boston accent and bravado. He walks around in fancy suits with self-assurance as if he’ll never get caught, peddling half-truths and slyly diverting attention away from his schemes.
The plan – an ill-advised alliance between Bulger and the feds – stretches from the late ’70s to the early ’80s. Cinematography, production design, and costume deliver a period-accurate look. The widescreen 35mm format provides nice character compositions and gave it an authentic feel.
While the alliance that catapulted Bulger from small-time crook to kingpin delivers great moments, it doesn’t come together as a compelling story.
The plot goes through the motions like bullet points in Wikipedia. The movie doesn’t provide a believable look at Bulger’s sprawling empire and his machinations. The audience is left to assume that he’s earning a lot of money from vending machines and some other bad criminal stuff while being able to maintain it with a few henchmen.
It also doesn’t provide any perspective from its characters nor even try to portray them as individuals. The movie is more concerned about their notoriety to deliver a gangster story. Connolly and Bulger have parallels, but the movie barely scratches the surface as the plot prefers to tread on the familiar lines of loyalty and fraternity.
Important secondary characters are included but the movie suffers from popularity-driven casting. Adam Scott is miscast as an FBI agent. Benedict Cumberbatch, who doesn’t have the slightest brotherly resemblance with Depp’s transformation as Bulger, delivers a reedy accent where you can hear the desperate tones of his British voice trying to get out.
In fairness, Depp is surrounded by henchmen of good supporting actors, with David Harbour as the misguided John Morris.
In the end, Black Mass finishes with a typical fact-based montage. It provides no social commentary, compelling thematic hook, or even love-to-hate characters.
If you’re looking for a neatly packaged biopic with an A-list treatment, Black Mass is adequate enough. However, if you’re looking for an in-depth look at James “Whitey” Bulger and the world he ruled, you are better off searching somewhere else.
Black Mass benefits from outstanding performances, and deft film-making choices, but ultimately rings hollow because of its generic wikified plot.