It’s better when a certain type of flick is based on a true story. Gangster movies are one of these types. Seeing an interpretation of people that actually exist(ed), doing things that actually happened, is powerful.
This is no slight on fiction. The imagination is a beautiful thing. But a film is often more compelling if the events that transpire are not confined to the pages of a book or the corridors of someone’s consciousness. For wonderful or wicked, you are watching a depiction of the truth.
Onto Black Mass then, and Johnny Depp returning to the gangster genre for the third time. He has featured in proper flops recently (Lone Ranger, Transcendence, Mortdecai) and the talented, eccentric actor required a return to the form he displayed in films such as Edward Scissorhands, Pirates of the Caribbean and Sweeny Todd. While we’re here, I’ll mention Donnie Brasco as well.
How’d he do?
Boston lowlife James ‘Whitey’ Bulger pursues a life of crime in the early 1970s. His brother Bill (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a powerful politician in the Massachusetts state senate. Childhood friend John Connelly (Joel Edgerton) has become an FBI agent and attempts to convince Bulger to become an informant in order to assist the agency in bringing down more notorious crime lords.
Smelling blood, Bulger strikes the deal. Under the protection of the federal government, he expands his enterprise and becomes one of the most dangerous, notorious gangsters in U.S. history.
And it actually happened! With a pinch of salt, of course, because it’s Hollywood’s self-appointed task to sensationalise. It’s what they do.
The events in the film are not fully accurate, incidentally or chronologically. Two of Bulger’s former associates have been interviewed to confirm this. One of the criticisms is Bulger’s prolific use of profanities, which his associates insist only actually occurred in the presence of his enemies.
That’s to be expected, so I’m okay with it. Besides, Depp sounds rather good when he swears. I’m also okay with his performance. Despite not being at his utterly magnetic best, it is difficult to look elsewhere when Depp is on screen. He alternates between creepy charm and unbridled madness with appropriate panache.
Joel Edgerton is convincing as John Connelly. His unprecedented rise up the FBI and the subsequent chaos gives the plot suitable depth. Cumberbatch is less dazzling than his mesmerising performance in The Imitation Game. His display in Black Mass is less nuanced and subtler, but the man is a star player. End of.
It’s an accomplished film. There are some marvellous shots. Robust audio enhances the visual with metronomic accuracy. There is tension. Violence. Death.
And yet, I exited the cinema with a quiet lack of fulfilment. The ride was thrilling but my seatbelt remained fastened throughout. I felt too safe. If the car were to crash, I would have survived.
I wanted to be biting my nails. I wanted to want to close my eyes when things got a bit crazy. I wanted my skin to crawl.
Maybe that was the point. Maybe Whitey Bulger wasn’t like other kingpins. Maybe he did things differently.
But director Scott Cooper missed a trick. I don’t know what step needed to be taken or what direction to take it, but Black Mass could have been properly sublime.
All things considered, it will have to make do with being a decent gangster film. Maybe the level of expectation was too high. Maybe next time, Johnny.