Starring: Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch
Director: Scott Cooper
Running Time: 122 mins
Black Mass is an American film about the life of notorious Boston mobster James ‘Whitey’ Bulger, and his relationship with an FBI agent as he provided details to the bureau in order to prevent all-out gang warfare following the Italian mafia’s invasion of his territory.
This is the mother of all wannabe gangster movies. It’s got all the hallmarks of a mob classic, as well as an astonishing central performance by Johnny Depp, but it falls short of providing a truly enthralling story due to a poor first act, two-dimensional characters and an often hugely convoluted plot.
Before we get into that though, let’s look at the performance given by Johnny Depp in this film, as mobster Whitey Bulger. Put simply, he is stunning. Depp not only gives a completely transformative and unrecognisable performance like the one we saw from Steve Carell in Foxcatcher, but he commands the screen at every moment for the entire duration.
He portrays Bulger in such a menacing way, striking fear into your heart every time he appears, but he also presents the man as a deeper enigma, someone who is troubled beyond his simple lust for power and territory, and that makes him also fascinating to watch. I think this is a performance that merits recognition from the Oscars come January and February, so watch this space.
The rest of the film, however, doesn’t quite match Depp’s performance. Most disappointingly, the first act is very poor. It’s hard to really get into the story for the best part of an hour here because, in the first act, there are so many separate stories happening all over the place, it’s hard to concentrate.
You’ve got Bulger, his wife, the FBI, his brother, his cronies and all sorts that appear here and there in a hugely convoluted opening period, and with so many different characters all packed into such a short space of time, it’s inevitable that they’re not developed to the full extent that you’d like, so that makes it even harder to get into the film, because you’ve got a plethora of really plain characters that don’t seem to hold any significance in the plot.
However, the film does redeem itself come the second act. Firstly, as the movie progresses, you get the clear impression that it’s intending to pay tribute to classic mobster movies, including a ton of Scorsese techniques that make this feel like a Goodfellas tribute band, as well as a clear Godfather-esque closing sequence. On the whole, however, using that inspiration works a treat, and adds a little bit more style and intrigue to the film that was missing in the opening stages.
What’s more is that the film actually slows down a bit in the second act. You get more focus on Bulger and Joel Edgerton’s character, the FBI officer in cahoots with him, and that provides for some deeper and more substantial storytelling that is a whole lot more interesting to watch, and manages to turn this film back into an intriguing and often tense crime drama like it clearly wants to be, and that’s why I’ll give Black Mass a 7.1.