The issue with any biopic is that there’s only so much you can condense into a film. At a little over two hours, Black Mass feels like an assortment of recycled gangster plots.
Adapted from Dick Lehr and Gerard O’ Neill’s book of the same name, it tells the true story of Boston crime lord James ‘Whitey’ Bulger (Johnny Depp), the leader of the Winter Hill Gang who was once listed on the FBI’s top ten most wanted list. Rising FBI agent John Connelly (Joel Edgerton) returns to Boston and is tasked with eradicating the Italian mob. He decides to uses his South Boston connections to meet with childhood friend Whitey, persuading him to join an alliance with the FBI. “Get the FBI to fight our wars and our enemies,” says Whitey on his decision to help after a member of his gang is gunned down. So Whitey slips the Feds some information, they arrest a number of criminal gangs, John looks like a hero at the FBI and the reduced competition allows Whitey to grow his own gang. It’s an ‘alliance’ that initially works well for the both of them. But what goes up must come down.
Director Scott Cooper applies a lot of polish to his film, but it’s not enough to hide the slow pace and dreary story. The production design by Stefania Cella and the costumes by Kasia Walicka-Maimone help sell the setting as events move through the 1970s to the early 1990s. The gritty look that comes from Masanobu Takayanagi’s cinematography is also brilliant to soak in. Oscar nominations here wouldn’t be a huge surprise. However, it’s all serving a story that never seems to elevate itself to being more than passable. Adapted for the screen by Jez Butterworth and Mark Mallouk, there’s little in the way of thrills. More than once, a character’s imminent death feels like it’s signposted, losing any shock or awe when it does happen. There’s also a reliance on voiceovers in exchange for character depth.
The acting from the cast is generally all top notch; Johnny Depp being the obvious standout as James ‘Whitey’ Bulger, with the make-up effects (led by Marleen Alter) enhancing his performance. We see that family is important to Whitey. He plays Gin for cash with his mother and dispenses life advice to his six-year-old son (“Punch people when no one is looking”). A scene he shares with John’s wife Marianne (Julianne Nicholson) to see if she really is sick has Depp initiate mega creepy mode. Given his ascent to power over Boston, we rarely see Whitey enjoying himself (at one point in a nightclub Whitey seems more interested in watching John dancing away like a loon). There are moments where Depp gets to let rip with the character, be it a murderous act, or taking his anger out on a hospital table, yet most of the time he plays it calm and serious, delivering cold stares.
There is also a lot of talent that have taken up minor roles. Kevin Bacon seems permanently pissed off as the head of the Massachusetts’ bureau, Charles McGuire. Benedict Cumberbatch works the accent as Whitey’s brother, Billy, a senator. Peter Sarsgaard appears as a brilliantly deranged shooter that ends up working with the gang, Dakota Johnson as Whitey’s girlfriend, and Rory Cochrane as Whitey’s right hand man Steve. The film opens with Jesse Plemons as Kevin, whose inclusion into the gang introduces us to Whitey, but he’s then just relegated to hovering around in the background. In fact, some of these actors aren’t even on screen for more than ten minutes.
While the transformation and performance of Johnny Depp is certainly one of the highlights, the rise and fall of John Connelly is far more interesting. Joel Edgerton delivers a convincing Boston accent as we watch his character become conflicted with the misguided loyalty he holds for Whitey. We’re told (via voiceover) that, “Like everyone, he was in awe of Jimmy,” going so far as to immerse himself in that decadent lifestyle. Even his wife brings to his attention the influence Whitey is having on him (“You’re getting manicures.”). John also tries (and sometimes fails) to outsmart those around him. Seeing John attempt to win over a new FBI prosecutor, Fred Wyshak (Corey Stoll, in a minor but memorable role) by offering a pair of tickets to a sports game, only to end up annihilated with questions about Whitey, is absolutely priceless.
As a gangster biopic, Black Mass can’t help but draw comparisons to the classics that have come before it, with some scenes evoking memories of Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas. However, while that (and many other gangster films) would leave you so engrossed with the characters that you actually want those criminals to get away with their schemes, it’s difficult to find anything likable about any of the main characters in Black Mass. Even after Whitey loses two people very close to him, you don’t feel a shred of sympathy for him. You’re just waiting for justice to be served.
With drugs, violence, money and greed, Black Mass ticks the expected boxes on the checklist, but fails to be anything more. Aside from a few tense moments, the end result is somewhat disappointing given that all the talent has produced an average, by-the-numbers gangster flick.
Black Mass opens in the UK on 27 November 2015.