Johnny Depp’s dynamite performance can’t save Scott Cooper’s derivative gangter picture.
A few anomalies aside, it feels like it’s been over a decade since we’ve seen Johnny Depp, Actual Actor, which is unfortunate because taking a gander at some of his earlier work it’s easy to see he can be a rich performer but as of late he’s simply been accepting roles based on a silly costumes/voices quota, roles that allow him the nonchalance to overact – haven’t seen Depp restrain himself since Michael Mann’s Public Enemies, 6 years ago – seemingly playing the most expensive game of dress-up ever. And while I’m not sure Black Mass will adjust his course as much as everyone thinks it will (he’s still rocking a goofy accent and make-up), Depp it’s genuinely great to see him working at a level of awareness and control we haven’t seen in many, many years… So it’s really too bad for the rest of the film around him which, despite a few solid supporting performances, never transcends the rank of cheap Scorsese knockoff.
Directed by Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart, Out Of The Furnace), Black Mass tells the story of James ‘Whitey’ Bulger (Johnny Depp), a Southey gangster who, due to some friendly relations at the FBI, fashions himself the kingpin of Boston right under the nose of the government – using them as a both a shield and a weapon as he creates an underworld they’re forced to turn a blind eye to. It’s a fascinating progression of real events. Events that in the hands of a filmmaker with something to say about them – say… Scorsese, who used Bulger as inspiration for Jack Nicholson’s Frank Costello in the far superior The Departed – could be doubly fascinating. Unfortunately the seemingly endlessly bland and generic Scott Cooper just isn’t that filmmaker.
That’s the glaring issue with Black Mass – that it’s an aggressively bland film, ostensibly about nothing. It tracks fascinating events with actors turning in occasionally fascinating performances (a brief minute-long conversation between Depp and Julianne Nicholson is authentic and unnerving in ways I wish the rest of film was) but Cooper handles it with the narrative panache of a Wikipedia page, with no discernible point to what these events mean. Cooper can turn in some pretty images, and he’s good at giving actors the freedom they need to turn in good performances, but beyond that he’s got nothing to offer – it feels as if he knows what a film like this should look and behave like and just does his best to replicate, getting crushed by the weight of all the great gangster and Boston pictures before him.
There’s also the issue of focus. The script tackles Bulger’s story through the framework of those around him – partners, colleagues, enemies – opening with interrogation room confessionals and never using them to any effect other than easy exposition, in the process also distancing us from Bulger in ways that make the film dramatically inert. That same basic, weak level of storytelling bleeds into the film as it tries to track multiple characters/arcs, never making anyone other than Bulger’s individually interesting and never really cohering them together into the expansive tale it thinks it’s telling – a lot of the time reducing the only outstanding quality the film has going for it (Depp and his performance) to a supporting element. It’s easy to see why: Cooper wants a boogeyman quality to Bulger, a monster freely committing nightmarish acts on the streets, but in choosing to turn the focus away from him we’re just left with a bunch of people standing around saying “Bulger did *insert bad thing*!!” No energy whatsoever.
And what’s more frustrating is that this route is taken so that focus can be shifted to Bulger’s brother (Benedict Cumberbatch, hopelessly miscast) and FBI agent John Connolly (a mostly fine Joel Edgerton) as they provide perspective on the inner workings of the institutions – again, almost solely for exposition purposes. As you can imagine neither of the two characters spend much time on screen with Depp, as neither can fully associate themselves with the criminal underworld, and that creates an even further disconnect. All of a sudden every moment away from Bulger feels like a distraction, evaporating any immediacy Depp’s presence brings to his scenes. Every time Cooper cut back to Edgerton I just kept wishing I was watching The Departed – or any film that feels remotely as alive as its performances because that’s ultimately where Black Mass fails. Depp is magnetizing and electric, which only serves as a reminder of how utterly lifeless and stale everything around him is.
Black Mass stumbles its way into theatres on September 18th.