** out of ****
By all accounts, Whitey Bulger was a ruthless murderous gangster - and according to the F.B.I., he was an informant in a partnership that proved to be a disastrous decision on their part. In the new film, Black Mass, Bulger is portrayed as a sinister looking man, played by an almost unrecognizable Johnny Depp under some very heavy makeup.
In reality, Bulger was a pretty normal looking man, capable of charming some and terrifying others. Johnny Depp may disappear into an interesting performance here, but not a truly effective one. Scott Cooper’s movie doesn’t give Depp or many other characters in the film much room to grow. Too much of it is wasted on sensationalizing Bulger’s violent crimes fulfilling the standard tropes found in gangster pictures.
Bulger has been the inspiration for fictional characters in the past. Jack Nicholson, despite a lame New England accent, played a memorably satanic Boston crime lord in The Departed and Jason Isaacs played the manipulative criminal brother to a Rhode Island politician in Showtime’s Brotherhood. Both characters were more emotionally believable incarnations of this man when they weren’t officially playing him.
I've always felt that the reason why biopics have so much trouble, is because they are indebted to facts, which can restrict the creative process from allowing the characters and atmosphere to come to life. The careful undertaking of conjecture often leaves things lifeless, even though gross embellishments are inevitable. Great historical movies are usually full of crap, but if they find a sense of direction, they work.
At the very beginning of Black Mass, we're mislead into thinking that Kevin Weeks (Jesse Plemons) will be the audiences surrogate by introducing us to Bulger through his eyes and then cutting to years later as he provides testimony. The movie loses track of him shortly after. Later we're shown other partners of Bulger's doing the same through Rory Cochrane as Steve Flemmi and W. Earl Brown as John Martorano. It's a formula that feels borrowed from other movies but has very little purpose here.
Another false start involves Bulger's relationship with his Senator brother Billy, played by Benedict Cumberbatch and their Mother, played by Mary Klug. The lack of focus through all of these characters, seems like an example of the bad influence that good television has on otherwise good movies. I had the same problem with Straight Outta' Compton.
Thankfully, the movie eventually finds its focus through Bulger's partnership with childhood acquaintance John Connolly, who has risen through the ranks of the F.B.I. and wants to fight the Italian mob, by working with the small-time Irish American thugs. The choice to fight fire with fire, seems very questionable, but what makes Connolly choose this route is never fully explained. Did he really think it was the best approach, was he abusing his power to sway the crackdown away from his old stomping ground, or was he fulfilling a buried desire to be a gangster?
It simply gets annoying when he's being bothered with obvious questions by his superior (Kevin Bacon) about his dealings where his rationalizations are so transparent, that I feel we are owed a better explanation for this historical blunder on the F.B.I.'s part.
Black Mass is watchable, but far from remarkable. It demonizes someone who demands no demonization while making its way down a checklist crime movie standards, like overcast skies, celluloid grittiness, a Rota-inspired score, and people swearing at one another in northeaster accents ('cuz it's fun). Maybe that's your kind of thing. If that's the case, knock yourself out.