IN CINEMAS NOW
RUNNING TIME: 122 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
In 1975, James “Whitey” Bulger, leader of the Irish-American Winter Hill Gang, controls almost all organized crime within South Boston, but his hold over the area is challenged by the North end Angiulo Brothers. An unexpected opportunity arises with the return of FBI agent John Connolly to South Boston; Connolly being a former native of the area and childhood friend of Whitey and his brother William “Billy” Bulger, who is the Massachusetts State Senate President but who tolerates his brother’s activities. Connolly convinces Whitey to help him take down the Angiulo Brothers in return for protection from the FBI, and, after the Angiulo Brothers commit a Winter Hil Gang member, Whitey becomes an informant….
The chief publicity for Black Mass seems to have centred around Johnny Depp’s performance as the real life gangster James “Whitey” Bulger, and Depp is undoubtedly quite superb, a horribly convincing essay in pure evil that is often chilling to watch. Indeed there are fine performances all over the place, but they can only do so much to raise a film that otherwise doesn’t really work. Based on the 2001 book Black Mass: The True Story of an Unholy Alliance Between the FBI and the Irish Mob by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neil, it tells a fascinating true-life [if somewhat embellished] story, but does it in a way which fails to entirely come off. The film largely takes the form of flashbacks as various members of Whitey’s crew recall specific time periods while being interrogated by the FBI, but these flashbacks don’t always make sense when we’re present at events the person narrating wasn’t present at, while much of the first half has sections which are paced too rapidly and much of the second half draws things out, never really accumulating much tension towards the end when it ought to be doing so. Some scenes appear to have their conclusion missing, while others seem important but almost exist in a vacumn and/or come across as almost pointless. There’s even narration which tells us what’s taking place on screen, yet some important elements, like Connolly’s seduction into Bulger’s world, seem to be lacking key scenes and neither compel nor convince in the way that they should. I think that director Scott Cooper and his writers had a lot of trouble trying to sort out their complex narrative, and the end result is unfocused and something of a mess.
Nonetheless there are individual moments that do shine, like a truly creepy scene between Whitey and his wife, or when Whitey strangles an aide’s stepdaughter right in front of him in a really upsetting bit. The violence, though often shown at a distance or partially, certainly has an appropriately nasty effect, though the constant use of the ‘F’ bomb is just annoying and clumsy because it’s employed in a haphazard manner with little attention paid to naturalism. The tone is often inconsistent, generally going for a prosaic and sombre approach but sometimes wanting to be Goodfellas, with several scenes seeming to want to try to be like the “how am I funny?” scene. At least the film doesn’t fall into the trap of glamourising gangsters like Legend, while Joel Edgerton, playing Connolly, almost matches Depp despite his character being very thinly sketched. Black Mass, which fails to cover many of the interesting aspects of Whitey’s life in favour of traditional gangster tropes and far too many dull scenes featuring the FBI, feels like a three hour movie cut down somewhat randomly into two, and I reckon a director’s cut would fix some of its problems. For now though, Black Mass, while always watchable and still managing, just about, to be relatively interesting and absorbing despite its many flaws, is a major disappointment considering its subject matter and its cast.