Black Mass

United they stand...or else.

By Louis Balzani
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  • You’re a die-hard Johnny Depp fan.
  • You’re not too demanding of your crime-centric biopics.

Sometimes, it can feel like a movie was made for one specific reason. It may be a director’s pet project, or the studio may simply think it’s a fantastic idea. Additionally, films can serve as a sort of comeback vehicle for stars that have lost a step in the public eye, and this time around, it’s Johnny Depp’s turn. After a string of misfires culminating in the straight-up dreadful Mortdecai, the actor desperately needed to turn things around, and so we arrive at Black Mass, a grim crime drama intended to help him do just that. Though it’s far from perfect, one thing’s for sure: Johnny Depp is back.

The story is based on the fascinating real-life story of James “Whitey” Bulger, a former master of organized crime. Not content with life as a small-time gangster in South Boston, Bulger teams up with rising FBI agent John Connolly, whom he’s known since his childhood. Together, the two form an alliance wherein Bulger receives immune informant status in exchange for information about his rivals, the Angiulo Brothers. Bulger quickly decides to fully leverage his privileged status, taking advantage of the FBI’s protection to further his criminal empire, and the whole situation slowly (and predictably) spirals out of control.


Connolly and several other character factor into the plot in important ways, but make no mistake. This is very much Depp’s show, the opportunity for an all-encompassing performance to put him back on the map – and what a performance it is. Much as he has in the past, the actor completely disappears into Bulger, and the result is a striking performance that deserves considerable praise. Depp’s Bulger is every bit the imposing, aggressive psychopath he needed to be, and his sheer unpredictability throughout the film keeps you wondering what’s coming next every time he’s on screen. Of particular interest, though, are the early scenes where Bulger lovingly dotes over his young son. These moments give us a glimpse into the warmth and passion of the character, traits made all the more poignant as they slowly but completely give way to his matter-of-fact iciness – a mildly-reformed man slipping back into some comfortable and very dangerous habits. From start to finish, Depp steals every scene he’s in, and Bulger’s intensity is absolutely the strongest aspect of the film.

That’s not to diminish the rest of the cast, though. Joel Edgerton (writer, director, and co-star of the fantastic summer thriller The Gift) brings a great sense of depth and progression to Connolly, and watching his transformation from humble do-gooder to cocky power-broker proves fairly engrossing on its own. Many other recognizable actors factor into the equation, and they all put in solid work: Benedict Cumberbatch as Bulger’s uptight political brother, Kevin Bacon as a starchy FBI bureaucrat, and Corey Stoll as a driven investigator, just to name a few. The only real misstep is the very curious placing of Dakota Johnson as Bulger’s wife. She sticks out like a sore thumb in the role; thankfully, she only appears in two or three scenes early in the film, and we never see her again.


The real problem, though, comes with the movie’s relative failure to fully harness the source material. This frustrated me the most, primarily because of how thoroughly intriguing the basic storyline is. Ultimately, not all of the material beyond the scenes that feature Depp proves very compelling, and the whole affair seems content to stay within the somewhat-predictable boundaries of many other crime movies. The film as a whole suffers from what I call American Hustle Syndrome – great actors giving great performances within the context of a narrative that struggles to maintain its intrigue. I understand it’s important to strike a balance between entertainment value and staying true to your sources, and this is an example of what happens when a film doesn’t quite get it right. Simply put, the film is only truly interesting when Depp is on screen, and that kind of makes me sad.

Let me be clear, though. Black Mass is not a bad film – it’s actually quite good much of the time – it just feels as though it should be even better than it is. The film will likely see some financial success this weekend, in part due to a serious lack of significant competition. Depp’s performance carries the whole affair, and though it doesn’t do so consistent, the plot has its fair share of tense and shocking moments. You’ll likely enjoy it more if you keep your expectations in check, so don’t expect any miracles and you’ll have a decent time.