Black Mass

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Black Mass

Rated: R / Runtime: 2h 2m

Johnny Depp’s demonic turn as Whitey Bulger reminds us that he became a star for a reason in the otherwise forgettable crime flick Black Mass.

The story of longtime FBI Most Wanted gangster and South Boston crime lord James “Whitey” Bulger (Depp) contains a few great performances, although they’re curtailed by the procedural nature of the script. FBI Agent (and Southie boy) John Connolly, played by Joel Edgerton (The Great Gatsby), shines as the agent in charge of bringing Bulger in as an informant. Unfortunately, like in the superior Depp gangster film Donnie Brasco, he’s quickly seduced by the power and luxury afforded by the gangster lifestyle while justifying it all to himself as loyalty. Edgerton allows his agent to evolve from cocky and upstart to cocky and WAY over his head. David Harbour, as his supporting agent, is deeply moving in the few scenes where the weight of their operation is allowed to crash over him.

Depp is on another level, though. While the film can’t decide if he’s the main character, he’s impossible to avoid. His ghost-white demonic George Costanza hair, searing blue contacts, and black leather jacket make him look like he stepped out of a wiseguy Tolkien tale. Depp is always best as an oddball overwhelmed by his contrasting surroundings. His take on Bulger’s psychopathic kingpin blends a tyrannical need for control with the typical cold brutality of a mobster. His glimpses of benevolence are the same we always see from gangster films: criminal advice passed to children in schoolyard terms, helping the local hobbling crone with her groceries. But we never buy it. He’s always a being of pure danger, an unwavering force of will.

Some well-done scenes utilize Depp’s inherent creepiness as this inhuman gangster, forcing a dangerously seductive power commonly found in vampire movies onto unsuspecting victims.

Other than those performances, the acting would be completely bland if not for the actors struggling to perfect their nasal Boston drone. Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game, Star Trek: Into Darkness), as Bulger’s boringly sub-plotted senator brother, is a mannequin. Adam Scott, Kevin Bacon, Corey Stoll, and basically every other recognizable face are entirely forgettable uses of star power. Nawthin’ doin’ buddy boy.

Competently written, but never with enough oopmh to drive us towards anything, we wander aimlessly – not knowing if we’re going to a criminal dealing, or a moment of professional ambition from Agent Connolly, or one of the random murders committed by Bulger to remind us how tough and volatile he is. Once we arrive at the scenes, we usually get through in one piece, driven by the facts and testimony of dealmakers looking to lower their prison sentences. There’s so little linking them together or developing the players within that they feel like a series of ineffective gangster vignettes.

We’ve seen the story before, it’s dreary to look at, and there’s no drive between scenes with such a loose procedural narrative. You know how when you go into a job interview, in order to make a good impression, you want to give a firm-but-not-crushing handshake? Black Mass has a limp fish drooping from its sleeve. Tensionless, the film is about as exciting as poring over newspaper clippings.

At first, I thought this would be a film – like most gangster films – about the corruption of power. Then I realized I was giving it too much credit. Black Mass wants to be a film documenting the Bulger case’s bullet points and that’s it.

Sure it might incidentally include some character moments from its central duo of FBI agent and mob boss, but that’s never the focus.

It becomes apparent very quickly that Black Mass is dominated by veneers. The shallow lies we tell each other and ourselves to mask our intentions, to protect ourselves. Personal ambition is guarded by the thin disguise of hometown loyalty. Taking care of ones own, but only if it’s mutually beneficial.

Or the excuse of protecting your subjects as long as you’re the tyrant. I will be a kind dictator, but first you must give me ultimate power. The lie of getting in bed with a lesser evil to combat a perceived larger one.

But most of all, the film’s largest and most bald-faced deception: hiding behind true events to push forth the same tired gangster film while saying nothing new.

There’re a lot of interesting cogs in this particular machine (FBI, senators, kingpins, the blurred line between law enforcement and crime), and it takes a very special usage of that machine to churn out such a boring product.

Jacob Oller is an Oklahoma City film critic and writer. Find more of his work at or

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