Johnny Depp’s last few movies haven’t been anywhere near the box office successes studios were banking on and the negative criticism he has received for his performances and poor movie choices in general haven’t been too kind. For a while, it was almost like Depp was doing a rehash of his very famous Captain Jack Sparrow impersonation for every role he took on and it became tiresome to watch. So it’s refreshing that Depp has made a comeback with his latest role as James “Whitey” Bulger in Black Mass, a film that won’t allow you to turn away but leaves a lot to be desired.
Last year, a documentary called Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger came out and documented the Boston mobster in depth from his rise to his fall. Director Scott Cooper (Into the Furnace) decides to adapt Whitey’s story to the big screen and turns the focus to the twenty years Whitey (Johnny Depp) was an informant for the FBI from 1975 to 1995, from right after his stint in Alcatraz prison right up to the time where he becomes a fugitive. So you can imagine that there’s a lot happening within these twenty years. The film opens with one of Whitey’s closest men–Kevin Weeks (Jesse Plemons) right after he’s taken into custody–retelling the story from when he joined the Irish-American Winter Hill Gang, to Whitey’s rise from small-time mobster to big-time crime and drug lord. Eventually charged with racketeering, extortion, and murder, Whitey’s tale is as much a part of former FBI agent John Connolly’s (Joel Edgerton) own story, as the two childhood friends’ stories intertwine and things get darker and darker.
There is a lot happening in Black Mass and a lot of people to keep track of, as familiar face after familiar face–from Kevin Bacon, Adam Scott, Peter Sarsgaard to Dakota Johnson, Corey Stoll, and Benedict Cumberbatch (who plays Whitey’s state senator brother)–pop in and out of the story. The plot, however, is more focused on Whitey and Connolly, with all the other characters informing the plot and more or less playing second fiddle to Depp and Edgerton. And while Scott Cooper has always had a knack for bringing dark themes, events, and characters to the forefront, a lot of the film’s problems lie with the fact that we don’t really go into depth with anything that happens onscreen. There are scary threats, public murders, and a story that somewhat resembles The Departed and Goodfellas, although the execution isn’t nearly as good as the aforementioned films.
And it’s hard to make a mob-centered movie, especially when there have been such good ones in the past. The intention of the film is clear and there’s plenty of tension, but there is no emotional core, nothing that will let you see past the facts we’re given. The way the story unfolds is very systematic, brought to life by fantastic performances by everyone involved, but there still leaves a lot to be desired. Screenwriters Mark Mallouk (Rush) and Jez Butterworth (Get on Up, Edge of Tomorrow) are far too fact-focused and don’t seem to want to explore Whitey as a person other than giving us only what he’s done but nothing else to work with.
You can enjoy Black Mass for what it is: a decent mobster movie and Johnny Depp is most definitely at his best here, with great performances all around from Joel Edgerton and Benedict Cumberbatch in particular. However, outside of some tension and scenes that are woven together very well there is nothing there for us to really latch onto, and unless you know the story of Whitey from before, then the relationships between everyone won’t come off very strong. The movie spans twenty years, and that’s a lot of information to pack in, but sometimes the film gets caught jumping from one thing to another without lingering and doesn’t elicit the response it may have been hoping for because everything is kind of glossed over. Entertaining but underwhelming for a movie of its kind.
Release Date: September 18, 2015 | Director: Scott Cooper | Screenwriters: Mark Mallouk, Jez Butterworth | Cast: Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Kevin Bacon, Peter Sarsgaard, Corey Stoll, Jesse Plemons, Dakota Johnson, Adam Scott, Rory Cochrane, Julianne Nicholson, Juno Temple, David Harbour | Genre: Drama, Crime | MPAA Rating: R for brutal violence, language throughout, some sexual references, and brief drug use