by Patrick Bromley
"It's fine." - Patrick Bromley, F This Movie!
, the third feature from director Scott Cooper, feels like an Air-Quote Movie. It is slick and totally competent and looks the part but is informed only by other movies. It's a whole bunch of wigs and makeup and production design, like a group of people playing dress up. The movie is perfectly well made. The cast is impressive and, to a person, does a good job. But Black Mass
has nothing to offer that hasn't been served up by a dozen crime movies past.
Johnny Depp dons a bald cap, some latex and piercing blue contact lenses to play James "Whitey" Bulger, the Boston crime lord who topped the FBI's Most Wanted list for years before disappearing in the '90s and finally being arrested in 2011. Leading the FBI investigation into Bulger is Special Agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), who forms an "alliance" and gets Bulger to inform on his competition in the Italian mafia in exchange for free reign to do whatever he wants in the city. As Connolly sinks further into his corrupt relationship with Bulger, his situation grows more and more desperate as he has to cover for the Winter Hill Gang and protect what's his.
Every single actor in Black Mass
is recognizable and talented, from Bulger's crew made up of W. Earl Brown, Rory Cochrane and Jesse Plemons to the FBI agents tracking them (Kevin Bacon, Adam Scott, Corey Stoll) to Bulger's senator brother (Benedict Cumberbatch) to Bulger and Connolly's wives (Dakota Johnson and Julianne Nicholson, respectively). Cooper has stacked the deck in the film's favor. Masanobu Takayangi's photography has the right combination of slickness and grit for a period crime drama. Tom Holkenborg's (aka Junkie XL) score is effective without ever being bombastic. The editing works in that the scenes are put together well even though it's a two hour movie that feels like a four hour one. Everyone on the movie does good work. It just happens to be in the service of a movie that feels perfunctory when it should burn the screen.
Most of the story surrounding the reception of Black Mass
is the return of Johnny Depp to "real" acting, this despite the fact that it's yet another makeup-and-voice performance. It's an ok makeup-and-voice performance, somewhat less indulgent than some of the actor's more recent work, but Depp no longer disappears into roles as much as he disappears into the act of disappearing into roles. He doesn't try to make Bulger at all sympathetic, doubling down on making him a truly poisonous monster. This does give the film a sense of repetition, however, as we get scene after scene of Bulger making a threat and/or killing someone who might present a problem for him. He has hardly any dimension; we see that he cares about a few people early on, but those are lost to him and replaced by only more blackness. It's not as though any of this is layered into the character or that he's changed by any of these events. He's just an ugly person who grows uglier and also some bad stuff happens to him.
Joel Edgerton is much more interesting as John Connolly, primarily because he has an arc -- he gets to react to things, unlike Depp who is merely the thing to which others react. Connolly maintains the illusion throughout all of Black Mass
that he's a good guy who's doing the right thing, telling the lie so long he stops being aware of the fact that it's a lie at all. It's there in the way his voice inflects up with every line delivery. Watching Edgerton grow more and more panicked as he tries to keep all his balls in the air and keep the Feds away from Bulger is the closest the movie comes to generating real human drama, and even though Connolly is portrayed as basically a piece of shit we can at least recognize him as being human. He's flawed and terrible, but human.
Humanity is a big part of what's lacking from Black Mass
, as Scott Cooper shows little interest in connecting to the audience in any real way and a whole lot of interest in cribbing from other crime movies. Hardly any attempt is made to stage a sequence or frame a shot in a way that feels new or honest, only recycled from other similar works. It's not Cooper's fault that the period gangster genre is so well worn by now, but it's entirely his fault that Black Mass
makes no attempt to distinguish itself from any of them. I'm happy to see that Warner Bros. is still making crime pictures targeted at adults, as it's the genre that helped make their reputation back in the '30s. But after 80 years and countless other films, I would hope that Black Mass
would take greater care to stake out its own territory. Instead it's a well-made forgery. It's the American Hustle
of gangster movies.
I have no patience anymore for Johnny Depp. Besides being a horrible person (defending Roman Polanski? No thanks) he just keeps making the most boring movie choices and somehow people keep throwing money at him.ReplyDelete
You'd think after such an impressive row of flops (Mortdecai, Into The Woods, Transcendence, The Lone Ranger, Dark Shadows) people would learn.
If defending Polanski is grounds for you hating actors, your list is gonna be a lot bigger than just Depp.Delete
To be fair, Into the Woods made $212 million worldwide against a budget of about $50 mil. I don't know if we can really call that a flop. And even if it was, given his three minutes in it, I don't think anyone would lay the blame for that at his feet.Delete
Excellent review, Patrick. I saw it last Friday, it was probably one of my favorite performances from Johnny Depp in quite a while. I guess it would make an excellent double billing with The Departed.ReplyDelete
Patrick is spot on. This is this year's version of "The Town," a serviceable 'it's fine' movie that would be a great median for most Hollywood films released every year. I think it feels better-than-average because of the dreadful films released since mid-August. I swear that I thought Jeremy Renner's corrupt mayor from "American Hustle" changed his name to Joel Edgerton and repeated the same cartoony performance here. Other than how predictable the mob hits stacked up (I could see all of them coming a mile away; a good director like Scorsese would use misdirection to make the deaths sudden and impactful) I liked Johnny Depp's amoral take on 'Whitey' Bulger. He's a calculating and opportunistic bastard (before and after he loses his loved ones) that took advantage of John Connolly's offer and ran with it. Other than Depp's make-up making Bulger look the same for the span of 20 years (while his crew all around him changes) this is his best performance since "The Lone Ranger." The scene in Connolly's house when Bulger asks Agent Morris (David Harbour) about the 'secret sauce,' followed by the mobster getting up close and personal with Connolly's wife (without him doing anything to stop Bulger) is the most disturbing and scary scene in "Black Mass." That's saying something for a flick with quite a few grisly deaths and unending profanity.ReplyDelete
BTW, Adam Scott is in this movie and in "Sleeping with Other People" wearing almost the exact same mustache, I kid you not. I saw "Sleeping..." first, then saw "Black Mass" and almost said outloud 'What the F is Dr. Sovochek doing in Boston?' :-D
After Johnny Depp completely derailed Tusk I started thinking about what happened to this actor. He really has become Mr. Dress Up and hasn't had a great performance since Sweeney Todd (in my opinion).ReplyDelete
I thought it was good but not great. The performances are what got me through -- if nothing else, Cooper knows how to direct ACTORS well enough. I found Edgerton to give a better performance.ReplyDelete
Also, for what it's worth, The Town is far superior to this in every way that matters.
The Performances are really all there is. The movie may have been better if Bulger was more of a side character and have Edgerton as the main character and seeing more of the struggle and the toll it took on him keeping this charade going all this years.Delete
And it agree the Town was a better movie.
This is almost exactly what I said coming out of the film. Except that I think I was more passionately annoyed by how mediocre it is and how much it feels like great actors playing dress up. This is a bleak, joyless movie with very little story. I really didn't like it.ReplyDelete
What is it with Johnny Depp and bland crime biopics?ReplyDelete
No love for Donnie Brasco?Delete
I don't think Public Enemies was bad either.Delete
Adam, I love Donnie Brasco! I was thinking more along the lines of Public Enemies when I said that, which I agree isn't bad, but like Black Mass, I 100 percent forgot about as soon as it was over.Delete
I agree with the consensus opinion that the movie is fine but not unique, and the performances are good (enough) though not particularly noteworthyReplyDelete
. It is clear that a great deal of time and effort went into the production, so why were the film makers OK with such mediocrity? It feels like there were aspirations for greatness without the wherewithal to make it happen.
The performances are good but thats it. It doesn't really seem to be a movie. Joel Edgerton is the only person that feels like they have something to lose but the way handle his side of the story is done in a somewhat rushed or lazy fashion because he's not the main character, so you never really get the full affect of his story. We're introduced to Jesse Plemons character in the beginning as this tough guy and we pretty much never see him do anything again. I did enjoy watching Depp walk around in what appeared to be the same outfit for 15years though.ReplyDelete
Saw this over the weekend (keeping up with my "52 Movies in a Theatre in 52 Weeks" challenge) and found it pretty lackluster. Depp was okay - not great, but there did seem to be more effort behind the layers of makeup unlike his more recent outings.ReplyDelete
Not sure what kind of accent Benedict was going for, but it sounded very Smaug with a Southern Drawl to me. He tried, though.
Good luck with your challenge. I failed it a few months ago. I'll have to try next year.Delete
Thanks! I went through my ticket stubs the other day - my favorite way to keep track of the movies I see - and I am already up to 45. I should note that the year begins/ends with the Oscars and not the calendar year.Delete
Black Mass is the movie that wants to be the tough guy but once you punch it in the mouth it gets humbled. I thought it was fine but nothing special. And Depp looked like Alien Sam from Trick 'R Treat with his big ass forehead.ReplyDelete