Black Mass – 2015

Director Scott Cooper
Screenplay Jez Butterworth, Mark Mallouk based on the book by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill
Starring Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Rory Cochrane, Kevin Bacon, Jesse Plemons, Corey Stoll, Peter Sarsgaard, Dakota Johnson, W. Earl Brown

As someone who has seen Goodfellas somewhere close to 30 times, I don’t have to say how much I can appreciate crime drama at its best. It’s a difficult line to walk, deciding which real events and real people to leave out, what characters and events to meld together. One thing that cannot be left out is a compelling story driven by characters one can identify with and root for and against. For the Scorsese classic, we are drawn into the world through our tethering to the perfectly expressed thoughts of Henry Hill (Liotta), who lived by a code that was consistent, if not one the normal Schmo would find comfortable. This code is presented through a procession of scenes that build upon one another as the character grows within his environment. He doesn’t grow a conscience and decide he needs “out.” Furthest thing from it. He does what he has to in order to survive, and then lives with adjusted consequences.

Ever since that film, many mob stories have come and gone, most trying but failing to duplicate it’s success. Scorsese himself tried it again a few times, failing with Casino and even more spectacularly with The Wolf of Wall Street, but scoring an Oscar with the good, but not great The Departed. The last of which is one of the many recent Boston “Southie” mob tales that have come out of the real life that Whitey Bulger lived. It’s a shame, after The Departed, The Town, Mystic River, The Boondock Saints films and The Equalizer, we reach the point where we’re taking on Whitey in depth and the formula has run out of steam.

It’s easy to blame the glut of films that take place in that world, but it is more than this that contributes to the feeling of tired resignation one gets while watching a film that is technically telling Bulger’s story proficiently and uncompromisingly. There is technique in the buildup of scene after scene, but it is a tired one that does not try anything new. Someone messes up, they go for a car ride, they get whacked. Someone gets arrested, they talk (or don’t) they go for a car ride…you know.

By the time I am finished watching Johnny Depp in his strikingly blue eyed makeup for 2 hours of this, I don’t know anything more about Whitey Bulger than what I read in the paper, saw on the news or elicited from The Departed. Plenty of people tell us who Bulger is, and we see him do things all the time. We never really know why he does them, because he was a fully convicted, served and released member of the Alcatraz club by the time we first lay eyes on him. Everything he does afterword is strictly driven by opportunity.

Where one suspects the story is trying to go is the story of FBI Agent John Connolly (Edgerton). He is trying to play both sides and score points while allowing his lifelong friend to thrive. There is some real grist here for a story, and it would be a great film if they could have done anything close to a believable job. I have yet to see the film where I believed that Edgerton acted poorly until this one. Even Uncle Owen from the dreaded Star Wars prequels outshines here. His performance is laughably underwritten and almost qualifies as parody. It’s one thing when we see him interrogate a witness against Bulger. We then see him go right out in public to question Bulger. Next thing we see is the witness dying. Got it.

We then see Connolly attempt to go through the same ritual with his disbelieving co-workers not once but two more times on screen. As if we didn’t get the point.

Then there is the disintegrating relationship with Connolly and his wife. It has all of the motions of other films where the husband gets in too deep and the wife gets spooked, but absolutely nothing in the way of a convincing execution of these events. From the moment they have their little make-out session at the beginning of the film you can almost see him being locked out in one hour screen time.

The best performances in this film are with Bulger’s accomplices:

Weeks, as played by Plemons, is a vacant ship, just doing nothing but being faithful. He has no other connections than Bulger and although we never see why he turns on him, that is the fault of the script only. W. Earl Brown as Martorano is like an older and wiser version of Weeks. He is ruthless, but his strict adherence to code gives us plenty of understanding why he would rat on the increasingly erratic and unpredictable Bulger.

The best acting is Cochrane’s take on Flemmi, who has his heart wrenched out quite cinematically but does a great job keeping a stiff upper lip.

Johnny Depp looks primed and ready to roll in his performance of the titular Black Mass. He is a void that continuously sucks in those in orbit around him. It makes one wonder what he could have done with perhaps a half-hour more screen time, or some genuine exploration of his character. It’s not his fault we never get to see him before he is a convict.

The experience rings hollow, unfortunately, and all of his work will be sadly forgotten by the time the next Boston crime story surfaces.

After scoring an initial win with Crazy Heart, Cooper has shown himself to be a competent if not particularly driven director. He hits every note here with such a thud, it plays like some sort of climax. By the time the story reaches it’s end, it feels more like a long day’s work than an experience.

Hard to tell how much of this is due to the bland script, which Jim Sheridan wisely left his name off of. I haven’t particularly loved anything Butterworth has written, although Liman, Blunt and Cruise did make something nice out of Edge of Tomorrow. Oh, and it might have helped having McQuarrie around for that one too.

While I never seek out Johnny Depp, I don’t root against him either. It was sad thinking that this might be one of the rare opportunities he’ll ever get for some real credible acting. In all of the obvious energy he put into his performance, this film is adrift from the first moments.

(** out of *****)

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