Black Mass follows the rise of Whitey Bulger’s (Johnny Depp) mob empire, aided by childhood friend and FBI confidant, John Connolly (Joel Edgerton).
I’m not going to focus on what did or did not happen in real life; If I were concerned with the life and times of Whitey Bulger, I’d buy a well-sourced biographical book. I’d prefer to focus on the story and character elements—the reason I saw the film; and the reason I left disappointed.
The story failed to get off the ground or accomplish anything. Most of Black Mass consists of mob hit after mob hit, with brooding bits of exposition in-between to catch the audience up when the director decides to jump ahead 5 years. As far as pacing goes, the film does a good job keeping tension, but that stems from the uncertainty of who Whitey is willing to murder next.
The whacking’s in question aren’t particularly creative. They even double down with two starkly violent parking lot assassinations. Both happen in broad daylight, and both with countless witnesses—I get that they’re supposed to be bold killers, but if this really did happen, then Connolly, the FBI agent tasked with covering up the mobsters’ crimes, must have been doing a stellar job.
Johnny Depp is great at eccentric characters—be it a swashbucklers or a chocolatier—but his appearance here seems out of place. His piercing, unnatural blue eyes, along with his puffed back hair, give him the appearance of a Bostonian Dracula, especially when the rest of the cast blends in with the pale background.
It’s bad enough that he looks like a vampire, but he acts like a blood-sucker as well. Apart from one scene where Depp catches his coat on a chair and has—what seems like—an improvised tantrum, he doesn’t present anything human on the screen. When he does go through a change, rather than show it, the film cuts to someone in a police interrogation room who simply explains that Whitey changed.
I normally wouldn’t have problem with a Depp playing a complete mad hatter, but I doubt that was the intent of the film. It felt like the director attempted a gritty crime drama, fashioned after Scorsese classics like Casino, Goodfellas, or Departed. But it lacks the substance that makes those films classics; they’re all modern day Shakespearian tragedies where the character’s empire crumbles due to hubris, or as a wise guy might say, “that Hamlet motherfucker had his head up his ass.” And while we see Depp’s hubris and downfall, we never see any human side to his character.
I can’t recommend Black Mass because of the disjointed story, Depp’s outlandish appearance, and the films inability to make the audience empathize with anyone. It might have been a better film if it didn’t attempt to cover so much ground, or if it had a longer run, like that of the Netflix series, Narcos, which manages to do all the things Black Mass couldn’t and more.