Yikes. Is this really the first full review I’ve done since mid-July? I’ve been doing a lot of Duets lately, which are great, but it’s nice to take some time to really break down a movie every now and then. Since this one might be getting one or two Oscar nods (at least that’s my guess), it seems worthy of the full-review treatment. Plus, this is the first truly great performance from Johnny Depp in years. I think that’s worth celebrating, don’t you?
Honestly, Black Mass was one that I wasn’t even totally sure I’d be interested in, but the more trailers I saw, the more I thought it seemed worth a shot. The presence of Benedict Cumberbatch in the cast and the lack of much else in theaters eventually convinced me to take that shot, and you know what? I’m glad I did. Not only did I get to see some great performances from a solid cast, but I got to learn the story of one of the most vicious criminals in U.S. history. Interesting, and also very, very unsettling…
Synopsis: “The true story of Whitey Bulger, the brother of a state senator and the most infamous violent criminal in the history of South Boston, who became an FBI informant to take down a Mafia family invading his turf.” –Borrowed from my favorite movie site, IMDb
The Good: Johnny freaking Depp as James “Whitey” Bulger. Pretty much everyone is proclaiming this Depp’s best performance in years, and I think it’s safe to say that’s accurate. Not only is he basically unrecognizable underneath all that makeup, but he’s straight up scary. His calm, cold demeanor and violent outbursts make him an intimidating character, and it’s always tense when he’s onscreen. This isn’t Depp’s flashiest character, but it is probably his creepiest. I’m really crossing my fingers that he gets an Oscar nom because he is absolutely the shining star of this film. However, Joel Edgerton as conflicted FBI agent John Connolly is a close second. Connolly looked up to Whitey and his brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch) as a kid, which makes it much harder for him to see either of them objectively—especially when Connolly decides to make Whitey an FBI informant. I think the relationship between Connolly and Whitey is particularly interesting, and I like seeing how that relationship changes Connolly over the course of the film. Also, Rory Cochrane as Steve Flemmi! Is it just me or is Cochrane popping up all over the place all of the sudden? I’m glad for that though because Cochrane is great as Flemmi, Whitey’s right-hand man who is clearly the most guilt-ridden of all of the gang (and you’ll see why). I found it really interesting to learn about all of these people—particularly where they wound up in the end. The film does a nice little summary of that, telling who’s still in prison and who’s walking free today (and you might be surprised about that last bit). It’s a compelling gangster drama, yet also something of a history lesson. Granted, it’s a very dark piece of history, but it’s interesting nonetheless. Also, random, but can I just say how much I enjoye Benedict Cumberbatch’s Boston accent? So much better than his southern accent. (Sorry, Benny, but it’s true.)
Favorite Scene: I don’t know if “favorite” is the right word for this scene, but it really had an effect on me. It’s the only scene between Whitey and John’s wife, Marianne (Julianne Nicholson), and it is tense and creepy as all get out. I won’t say much beyond that because I don’t want to spoil it, but just know that it’ll make you very uncomfortable.
The Bad: This film has a surprising number of big names, but it’s kind of shocking when you stop to think how underutilized so many of them are. As much as I love me some Bennybatch, he really doesn’t get to do as much as I thought he would in this film. You could say the same of Adam Scott, Corey Stoll, and even Kevin Bacon. Heck, even Dakota Johnson—who claimed fame this year with Fifty Shades of Grey (an A+ film, I’m told…lol)—barely gets more than a few lines. Granted, I’m more okay with that because I don’t find Johnson particularly great. Also, I had a couple of truly random qualms: 1) Whitey’s nickname is never really explained. I mean, I guess it’s pretty easy to see why—he’s very white and very fair-featured. But, hey, so am I, and nobody calls me Whitey (to my knowledge, anyway). An anecdote would have been appreciated. 2) Why is this film called “Black Mass?” One of my biggest pet peeves is when I walk out of a movie and don’t understand why the title is what it is. I kept expecting there to be some kind of allusion to the title, but nope. Nada. These are little things, sure, but they did bug me.
Least Favorite Scene: Remember those underused actors I mentioned earlier? There’s no better example of that in this film than Peter Sarsgaard’s all too brief appearance as slimy, drugged-out, yet pretty interesting Brian Halloran. I’d be surprised if he has five minutes of screen time in this film. Such a waste.
To Sum It Up: Is Black Mass the best gangster film ever? Probably not. But it’s bolstered by a strong performance from Johnny Depp and a fascinating story about one of the worst criminals in U.S. history. Plus, the friend I went to see this with compared it to Goodfellas, so that counts for something, right? (I haven’t seen Goodfellas, so I’m taking her word for it. Sidenote: Please don’t yell at me for not having seen Goodfellas.) Personally, I thought this one was worth the ticket price. If this sounds like your thing and/or you’re a big Depp fan, I highly recommend it.
My Grade: A-