Biopics, specifically gangster biopics are hard to pull off. For one you are starting with someone who by the very nature of what they do is unsympathetic and it often times depends way too much on whomever the star is in order to carry the story rather than the power of the writing and story itself. These were the main issues with “Black Mass” that kept it from being great, though it is good to see Johnny Depp in form again and there is a lot to like about this film, even though it missed some great opportunities to raise stakes and humanize the characters.
The film was directed by Scott Cooper who was also one of the producers and written by Jez Butterworth and Mark Mallouk while the other producers were Josh Lesher, Patrick McCormick, Brian Oliver and Tyler Thompson. It was also based on the book of the same name by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill.
The story involves the rise of fall of Whitey Bulger (Johnny Depp) and his relationship with his brother the Senator Billy Bulger (Benedict Cumberbatch) and their childhood friend who joined the FBI but stayed close to them John Connolly (Joel Edgerton).
The Pros: The Cinematography – The cinematography is dark and does a good job capturing the tone of the piece as we follow the life and times of the criminal Whitey Bulger. It never pretends to be anything but a crime biopic and the cinematography beautifully captures it. Takayanagi did a great job.
Whitey Bulger – Johnny Depp is great when he has the chance to play more than a Tim Burton stock character and we get to see him play a truly creepy and scary guy in this. He has relationships he cares about like his son, mother and brother but at the end of the day human life means nothing to him and we see that really well. His paranoia also continues to grow throughout the film as he becomes even more unstable than when we first meet him.
Billy Bulger – Cumberbatch does a fantastic Boston accent and is great as the brother who looks the other way and gives a good public face to the family as he is never corrupt as far as we can see, he is corrupt in how he hides his brother’s crimes by refusing to prosecute or do anything about what others bring forward. It is for this reason he eventually gets arrested we learn in the post credits scene when he stays in contact with his brother the fugitive.
Fred Wyshak – Corey Stoll does a fantastic job as the one who cleans house in the FBI leading to the eventual arrest of Connolly and Bulger and his gang. He is all about work and and it is great seeing him figure everything out, while holding it all close to his chest so that what informants Bulger has in the FBI won’t get out.
Charles McGuire – Kevin Bacon plays the FBI agent trying to do his job on a corrupt force and does a good job of it and clashing with Connolly. Kevin Bacon was great doing the no-nonsense boss shtick.
Okay: John Connolly – It was hard to care about this guy as he was so blatantly corrupt that I was just waiting for the eventual ax to fall.
The Cons: The Minor Characters and Women – Most of the minor characters were completely unmemorable, be they part of Whitey’s gang or the wives of the FBI agents. They were nothing be scenery and for this reason it was hard to care about what happened to any of them. They weren’t given agency.
The War with the Mafia – We never really see the face of the mafia so the war that the FBI fights and the Bulger is fighting with them doesn’t mean anything. They are only ever mentioned and we get the fallout and that really took a lot of the stakes out of the film as we don’t really get tension until Wyshack appears and does all he can to clean out the FBI and catch Whitey.
This was a decent film that is worth seeing if you are into crime dramas. Depp is memorable but the script needed work as the stakes aren’t executed well and the minor characters never rise above being stock crime drama characters. This is what kept it from being great and why I could see people not enjoying this film as you cannot count on stars to carry a film. “The Martian” worked because of the writing, directing and all of the cast being interesting. In this the only interesting characters are the main characters played by stars who are usually always good.
Final Score: 7.5 / 10