Director: Scott Cooper
Staring: Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dakota Johnson, Kevin Bacon, Peter Sarsgaard
Running Time: 2 hours 2 mins
Release Date: 27th November 2015
Johnny Depp‘s fantastic career has seen him play an array of weird and wonderful characters, from swashbuckling heart-throb to a leather clad cry baby. This year, however, he’s swapped fantastic costume for facial prosthetic as he plays Boston super gangster James ‘Whitey’ Bulger in Scott Cooper‘s latest feature Black Mass.
The gangster biopic begins in 1975 and introduces us to South Boston’s most notorious and violent criminal, Jimmy Bulger, as the leader of the Irish-American Winter Hill Gang. When Jimmy’s power position in the South is threatened by rival North end gang the Angiulo Brothers, he becomes an unofficial FBI informant, working with childhood friend and current FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton).
With Connolly and Jimmy working together, both turning to Jimmy’s State Senator brother, Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch) for help, the mission to destroy the mafia goes ahead but soon the entire gang find themselves directly in the FBI’s firing line.
Cooper takes a pretty traditional biopic route and, unfortunately, the safety doesn’t particularly work in his favor. While Jimmy is an interesting enough character, the narrative doesn’t feel overly committed to his story as Cooper struggles to juggle both this central narrative and the weaving testimonials of the FBI informants. It leaves the film and its flow feeling a little clunky and disjointing, leading to a rather slow paced narrative.
While the film as a whole is disappointing, the performances are not; specifically Depp’s central role. It’s rather refreshing to see Depp in a role that strays from his more type-cast ‘wacky’ characters, instead seeing him in a new chilling light. His portrayal of Bulger comes with a real hard edge, a sense of unnerving controlled fury but a hot rage that pours from that stern psychotic stare. He plays it very well and it’s easy to see his physical commitment to embodying the terror his character well represents.
Dakota Johnson gives a great performance as the Mother of Jimmy’s child, despite her small screen time. We only really get a quick glimpse at her role in Jimmy’s life and it feels like a missed opportunity and failure on the writers part not to have seen much of their backstory. Still, she’s particularly impressive during the hospital scenes; giving a wonderfully emotive performance with great chemistry between her and Depp.
Alongside him Edgerton and Cumberbatch do a perfectly fine job of giving audiences a glimpse of how else a ‘street kid’ might have turned out. The difficultly with these two characters however is that there’s nobody among Bulger’s gang to empathise with or even truly like. This especially applies to Edgerton’s character, who initially starts out as a little naive but continues to fall deeper into his loyalty with Jimmy; leading him to be completely unlikable.
Without somebody, anybody, to be rooting for, it’s difficult to really care about how the narrative progresses; why should we really care about justice when there’s nobody to want justice for? This really comes down to the writing and direction, as it’s not difficult to see that the cast are doing the best with what they’ve got. However, it often feels like the focus is paid too much on creative a generic gangster flick that the real narrative drive is neglected.
The film is terribly frustrating as it’s not hard to imagine a better movie if only they’d gone in a different, less predictable direction. Themes like Jimmy’s vastly different career to his Brother’s or his relationship with the Mother of his child peak your interest but they’re never fully explored and it does leave you with a cloudy head to disappointment.
Ones own love for gangster movies perhaps looks upon Cooper’s attempt with harsh eyes and I don’t doubt that Black Mass will find an appreciative audience who will be more than thrilled with his style and direction; I’m just not one of them.