Directed by: Scott Cooper
Written by: Jez Butterworth and Mark Mallouk
Edited by: David Rosenbloom
Composed by: Tom Holkenborg
Black Mass is a biographical crime drama which details the true story of James ‘Whitey’ Bulger, a mobster in the heart of Boston who worked closely with the FBI as an informant in order to wipe out his enemy – a member of the Italian Mafia. Not all was at it seemed however, as he was playing the FBI in order to get what he wanted in return.
Biopics are becoming prevalent in the film industry today and they are enjoyable for audiences to watch as they also can learn something – whether it’s a moment of history they were unaware of or the backstory of a singer that they have long been a fan of. It works well for the screenwriters, too, as they have plenty of source material to work off of. Sometimes too much. This is where Black Mass falls short.
The film was adapted from the novel by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill, entitled Black Mass: The True Story of An Unholy Alliance Between the FBI and the Irish Mob. The problem is that the screenwriters, Butterworth and Mallouk didn’t seem to know what to cut out which ends in a lengthy plot that doesn’t have any direction and nothing for the audience to work towards.
The film opens with one of the Winter Hill Gang (Bulger’s gang) giving a police officer insight into the crimes that Bulger committed. We are then subsequently introduced to James Bulger, portrayed by Johnny Depp. This is where I am going to take a moment to praise the film – this might be the best I have ever seen Depp, aside from Jack Sparrow. Controversies aside about him, there have been roles that I’ve seen him in where I can’t see past the fact that he’s Depp, no matter how many prosthetics he may be covered in. I fully believed his portrayal of Bulger and it is a terrifying performance to be remembered. He improvised a lot of his work and creates a villain that is no way intended to make the audience empathise with him.
While on the positives of this film, every member of the cast excels themselves – we have Joel Edgerton playing John Connolly, the gang’s contact in the FBI who grew up with Bulger. He constantly impresses me in every film I’ve seen him in, he’s yet to disappoint. We then have Benedict Cumberbatch as Billy Bulger, James’ brother who sells the brother torn between two conflicting worlds incredibly. Other honourable mentions are Corey Stoll as Fred Wyshak, the man who inevitably brings the gang down; Julianne Nicholson as Marianne Connolly, John’s wife and David Harbour as John Morris. While I was excited to see that Dakota Johnson was in this, too, she was thoroughly wasted and it’s definitely not the strongest performance we’ve seen from her but I think that’s the fact she was playing off of Depp at his best.
If you’ve followed this website for a while, you’ll know that I love to talk about narrative structure and what makes a strong plot. When dealing with a biopic, you can allow for some flexibility in this as real life doesn’t work in the way that films do but the problem with Black Mass is that its main plot point is cleared up within an hour of the runtime.
When creating a plot, screenwriters should establish the goal for the character, the stakes up against them and the urgency for them to complete the task. Initially, that’s what Black Mass does – Bulger’s enemy, Angiulo has made a threat upon his life so the mobster decides to work with his childhood friend Connolly (who so happens to be in the FBI) in order to rid him of the Mafia boss for good. There’s the goal. The stakes are that their ‘informant’ relationship isn’t exactly legal and that they’re paying off the FBI agents. The urgency is that Bulger could lose his life and Connolly could lose his reputation and his job. Sounds good, right?
Wrong. As I mentioned, this was cleared up within the first act of the film so there was no further tension or plot point for the audience to hold onto to keep them watching. If I’m honest, Depp’s performance was the only thing that kept me mildly entertained while the plot meandered on with no real direction or focus. The rest of the film was rather uneventful even though it seemed a lot was happening – it all felt empty because there was no telling how it was going to end. And not in a good way.
This is truly a shame as the rest of the film had a lot of potential. The cinematography and direction is up there with some of the best directors; Cooper focuses on symmetry and closed spaces in order to show how isolated Bulger is from the rest of the world and how his world centers around himself. There’s also really slick editing from Rosenbloom and the score by Holkenborg is one of the strongest components within the film. But it goes to show, without a good plot, you create an unmemorable film. I’m giving it 3 stars for the cast’s acting, the cinematography and the score.