‘Black Mass’ A Neutered Mess, Despite Powerful Performances (FILM REVIEW)


The story of James “Whitey” Bulger is one of the more fascinating true crime tales of the last forty or so years. As a low level, South Boston, Irish mobster, Bulger gained a notoriety for ruthless violence, cunning strategy, and illicit money making in his rapid ascent as the head of Boston’s Winter Hill gang, becoming a sort of folk hero for many in “Southie.” He spent 16 years on the lam, hiding out from the FBI despite being second on their most wanted list, behind only Osama Bin Laden, before the noose finally tightened at the age of 81. Like any good mob story, his is a tale full of compelling twists, disreputable characters, murderous revenge, and brutal strong arm tactics. It was only a matter of time before Hollywood got their hands on the Whitey Bulger story, it’s just too bad they didn’t do it the justice it deserves.

Black Mass is a film that never rises above—perhaps never even reaches to—the sum of its intricate parts. And so I’m clear, all of its parts—the acting, the directing, the writing—are out of the park homeruns. It’s in the bigger picture that the film begins to break down. A shame, considering all the movie has working in its favor.

And there’s a lot working in its favor. Johnny Depp, no stranger to powerhouse performances, delivers one his best turns in at least the last decade, if not ever, as the brutal Bulger. The actor stretches his wings in ways that no Pirates of the Caribbean movie could ever allow him to, no matter how many bags of money Disney dumps on his front lawn. If nothing else, Black Mass is worth watching just as a reminder of everything Depp is capable of achieving given the proper freedom. It’s not just Depp, either; his entire supporting cast gives knockout performances, completely immersing themselves in their real life characters. Jesse Plemons (Breaking Bad) holds his own against Depp as Kevin Weeks, the one-time associate turned federal witness against Bulger, and reveals himself to be the finest of character actors. So, too, does Benedict Cumberbatch, as Bulger’s younger brother and Massachusetts state senator, Billy. With his affected Bostonian accent, Cumberbatch continues his long trend of turning chameleon for his roles and goes toe-to-toe with Depp for title of best actor in the movie.

It helps that their script, written by Marl Mallouk (his first screenplay) and Jez Butterworth (Edge of Tomorrow) and based on the book by Dick Lahr and Gerard O’Neill, gives them plenty of great material to work with. The words are effortless and the tension palpable. The duo have brought the story to the page with ease, and under the direction of Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart) the film truly comes alive.

With so much to laud, what’s the problem? As good as all the parts are, the film feels overly rushed and underdeveloped, lacking the epic scale the Bulger story truly deserves. It’s a tale that deserves a 3 ½ hour movie but only given 2 with which to do the job. Situations are glossed over, and at times the narrative becomes choppy and feels suspiciously lacking. It’s not hard to see some executive mandating more and more cuts in order to work the film into an arbitrary 2 hour framework. In fact, actress Sienna Miller was supposed to have been featured in the film as Bulger’s girlfriend Catherine Greig, but her role was apparently left on the cutting room floor.

I can only imagine what else got cut from the film, and the end result suffers greatly for it. Whether or not this was a result of studio interference is only speculation on my part, but whether by mandate or by creative decision, Black Mass feels remarkably like half the movie it intended to be. Character development is hurried, narrative threads are loose and tangled, big events are rushed over.

It really is a damn shame. All of its pieces suggest a film that, by all rights, should have been one of the best of the year. What we’re left with is a film that feels neutered and malformed. While it’s by no means a terrible a movie, and in fact is still probably worth seeing at some point, it’s hardly the epic it needed to be and doesn’t even rank among the best gangster movies of all time. Hopefully there’s a longer cut out there, waiting for a home release, that will truly allow Black Mass to shine. To that end, it might be worth waiting until it comes out on Blu-Ray before checking it out. In the meantime, it might be best to watch the documentary White: USA v. James J. Bulger on Netflix instead of hitting the theater.

Black Mass is in theaters now.

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