Black Mass Review: Gangstas Be Trippin’

Hello all! This post brought to you by Kevin Bacon. Remember folks, it ain’t a Boston movie without Bacon. Yesterday I watched Black Mass, the movie that will reinvent Johnny Depp’s career. But actually, if you skip over all of the stupid projects that I assume Depp did for the money, you’re left with Edward Scissorhands and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and Sweeney Todd and Chocolat and various other Tim Burton weirdlands, so it’s actually quite an impressive resume. If you pretend Mortdechai never happened, I will too. 

This never happened either, okay?

Black Mass isn’t a bad film, but it isn’t great either. I have no doubt it will be included in some sort of Oscar race because any film released in autumn is gaming for that bet. Perhaps Best Leading Actor for Johnny Depp, which he might deserve (depending on the other contenders) or Best Supporting Actor for Joel Edgerton, which he deserves because he makes 70s hair look wicked shahp. There a few essential flaws to Black Mass, which I will cover, but first, a brief plot overview.

Black Mass follows the infamous gangster James “Whitey” Bulger as he transforms from low-life street thug to Supah Wicked Criminal. There is no cah pahking in Hahvahd Yahd, which was disappointing, but the film was otherwise so packed with Boston imagery that I can now say with certainty that South Boston looks like a horrible place to grow up. The film shifts between the view points of Bulger, the crime boss; John Connolly, his FBI ally/ suck-up crony, and Bulger’s various subordinates as they testify against him. The funny thing is that while we do learn a lot about Bulger’s crime enterprises, his very real tussles with notorious Boston gangs are excluded from the film and explained instead with voice overs. Maybe, like Sienna Miller’s entire role, they were edited for time.

This film does a few things very well. First of all, Johnny Depp disappears into the role of Whitey Bulger, or disappears as much as possible for a man with such recognizable cheek bones. His receding hair line and icy blue contacts make for an intimidating crime boss. The way Depp switches between humor and threats so adeptly had me tense in my seat. The best scenes in this film are the suspenseful ones, sometimes foreshadowed by Tom Holkenborg’s uninspired score, sometimes not. The tension lies in one question: will Johnny Depp shoot someone, or will he let them go? More often than not, Johnny Depp does shoot someone, but the uncertainty is always present. One particular scene with Bulger at a dinner party made me squirm around in my chair, certain that one of the characters would be stabbed with a steak knife. You”ll have to watch to see if such a graphic scene plays out.

The character actors are the real support of the movie. Kevin Weeks (Jesse Plemons), Bulger’s young confidante, looks like the casting director pulled him straight out of a Southie divebar and plopped him in the studio. Others, such as Steve Flemmi (Rory Cochrane), Bulger’s right hand man, and Brian Halloran (Peter Saarsgard), Bulger’s unfortunate business partner, play their roles convincingly and without flourish. Kevin Bacon does a reliable impression of Kevin Bacon and I SWEAR TO GOD that Robert DeNiro was in the movie for 5 seconds, but I may be hallucinating. The standout star was Joel Edgerton. There was a grab bag of Boston accents in the film, from Benedict Cumberbatch’s JFK inspired drawl (more on that later) to Dakota Johnson’s half-assed whisper (more on her too), but Joel Edgerton took the cake as far as I’m concerned. And he’s an Aussie! What a year this guy is having, eh? You go, Joel Edgerton!

See what I did there?

The cinematography was beautiful in this movie. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the Chahhhles Rivah look so glimmery. One day it’s shining with the city lights, the next day it’s a burial ground for Bulger’s many executions. Such a diverse character. One scene I particularly liked was the St. Patrick’s parade. Although it was a bit overkill, the scene was a wash of color in a mostly gray movie, Shout-out to Masanobu Takayanagi, Director of Photography. And also a shout-out to the editor, because those guys never get any recognition. You made those transitions so smooth, David Rosenbloom! SO SMOOTH!

But like I said earlier, Black Mass had some significant flaws. Miscasting was a huge problem in this film. I like Benedict Cumberbatch as much as the rest of the world, but I’m starting to realize his limitations. He cannot play an American. Like Kiera Knightley, his face and mannerisms are too British to allow him to successfully disappear into an American character. He took an admirable stab at a Boston accent, but it was more a caricature than a true-to-life impression. Cumberbatch has the same problem as people like Tom Cruise and George Clooney. Recognizable faces made them A-Listers, but they also make it impossible to see the actors as anyone but who they are. Another misuse of talent was Dakota Johnson and Julianne Nicholson. There are three female characters in this entire movie. Three.  They were used so sparingly that they might as well have not been used at all. And I get it, it’s a gangster movie. Women don’t factor into gangsta life that often. But if you’re going to make these actresses into nothing but cardboard wives, why include them at all? Why include Dakota Johnson in anything? WHY?

Another issue, at least in my opinion, was the pacing. The movie was a solid two hours and I felt every minute. I can’t put my finger on why it felt so slow to me. Each scene was important to the plot, but for some reason they bored me. My mother, on the other hand, thought it was the perfect length, so I guess it’s a matter of patience. I would have cut John Connolly’s interactions with his wife and many of the FBI scenes. The John Connolly-Bulger alliance was more effectively dealt with in the private spheres than in the FBI environment. Those parts felt cliche. Speaking of cliche, many parts of this movie seemed like they’d been stripped from countless other mobster movies. Much of the dialogue was traditional, tough thug speak. I feel like Joel Edgerton watched movies about gangsters, then decided to act like how they act. There wasn’t anything new to this movie. Individual scenes surprised me, but nothing about the overall plot was exciting or nuanced. It was basically a bunch of mobsters doing mobster things and then all getting caught in the end.

The screenwriters tried to make Whitey a complex character by adding in some melodramatic moments. For instance, there are tragedies involving his various family members, and we’re supposed to feel sorry for him. They also constantly refer to his hatred of snitches and his “psychopathic tendencies,” while also demonstrating how many of the Southie people see him as a protector. So for every scene where Whitey shoots a guy in the face, we get a scene where he tells his son to drink orange juice. They try to make us sympathetic to Whitey, but in the end it doesn’t work. Because when all of the mobsters are being arrested and sad, Tom Holkenborg music is playing, all I felt was satisfaction. I don’t care if Whitey loves his son. That doesn’t changed the fact that he executed 20+ people. He’s still a violent, psychopathic mobster. Your tragic music doesn’t work on me, Holkenborg!

I’m unsure what Black Mass was supposed to be. If it aimed to be a biopic, it was too sensationalized. If it aimed to be a character study, it lacked complexity. It works as a drama, but not an accomplished one, because it was too melodramatic in some places and too bare in others. I think if you watch it, you should take Black Mass for what it is. Don’t expect an accurate representation of the Whitey Bulger saga and don’t expect a finely tuned drama. It’s an entertaining, big budget mobster movie. For Black Mass, that’s enough.

Spare Parts

  • Why was Adam Scott in this movie? Why was Corey Stoll in this movie? But really, Adam Scott, why were you in this movie? Your mustache looks goofy.
  • I’m pretty sure that there is one 70s Boston house that they use for all Boston movies.  I’ve seen it in The Fighter and Mystic River and The Town. And I think they used it in Silver Linings Playbook and pretended it wasn’t in Boston. You can take the house out of Boston, but you can’t take Boston out of the house dammit!
  • Seventies Wallpaper. That it is all.
  • Why do all Boston movies take place in the 70s or 80s? Does Boston not exist anymore? Was the place I just visited a mirage?
  • I’m very disappointed in you, Tom Holkenborg. You blaze into this world with a masterpiece like the Mad Max: Fury Road OST and then you follow up with THIS tripe? Shame, Holkenborg. SHAME!
  • Why was this movie called Black Mass? It’s a cool name, but it makes zero sense. Whitey went to Mass twice in the movie. There was no blackness in that Mass. None. According to Google, a Black Mass is a ceremony to worship Satan. So I guess Boston was practicing Black Mass by worshipping Whitey? Too metaphorical, guys! Keep it simple.
  • Whitey Bulger hates the name Whitey, apparently. Go figure.

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