Screened Out – Black Mass

By : Stephen Miller
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Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dakota Johnson, Kevin Bacon, Peter Sarsgaard, Adam Scott, Corey Stoll

In Catholic parlance, a Black Mass is a satanic inversion of the Holy Mass, where one sacrificed others instead of oneself, and no good can come of it. The metaphor fits this dark, slow, unforgiving film – a mob biopic about James “Whitey” Bulger. It’s a cold, methodical, violent piece about a cold, methodical, violent character.

With this as a theme, Black Mass is watchable, but it never illuminates Bulger to us – specifically, why he does what he does. He’s one note: just pure evil. People are loyal to him and we never find out why except for fear.

Benedict Cumberbatch and Joel Edgerton play the two most intriguing characters in the movie.

Benedict Cumberbatch and Joel Edgerton play the two most intriguing characters in the movie.

We have better examples of mob movies based on true crimes – GoodFellas and Casino. It’s not that Black Mass is horrible; it’s just a little slow and obfuscating – flogging its “Satan incarnate” theme to death.

Depp portrays Bulger, an Irish-American murderer and organized-crime boss who held Boston in his grips from 1975 to 1997. He was able to racketeer and murder because he was supposedly an informant for the FBI. It helped that his childhood buddy James Connolly (Edgerton) was working the bureau. It also didn’t hurt that Bulger’s little brother (Cumberbatch) was President of the Massachusetts Senate.

Depp plays another man lost behind make-up. The script doesn’t support him creating a fully dimensional person of Bulger; he’s merely malevolent. The stiff prosthetic Depp has to act through is a bit of a travesty; the high forehead looks like some fake piece out of Dick Tracy. Depp’s ice-blue contacts are creepy and inflexible. One Google search tells us Bulger wasn’t quite this alien looking.

Edgerton and Cumberbatch easily steal the whole film. In fact, one could argue that the Black Mass was always Connolly’s flick, in that we learn more about his manipulations in the FBI than we ever do of Bulger. (Though, we never completely understand why.) Edgerton plays the character with gusto. Cumberbatch’s Senator is beautifully portrayed as torn between his family loyalty and the urge to keep his campaign and office above corruption. In short, the supporting characters are way more interesting than the man the film is supposedly about.

The real James "Whitey" Bulger and Depp's weird, unrealistic make-up and contacts.

The real James “Whitey” Bulger and Depp’s weird, unrealistic make-up and contacts.

Why do people risk life and career for this Lucifer? Black Mass talks and talks about Southie loyalty, but it never show it or how it was created. Instead, the script structure undermines the theme of loyalty; people “rat” and stab others in the backs throughout. Maybe the idea is that that supposed fealty is a complete myth in this hellish landscape, but that also means that people act for reasons entirely unfathomable.

Black Mass is a frigid and gray Hell, utterly devoid of any good human quality. It moves between biographical points as if it were a History Channel special. Director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart) takes a languid, gritty approach. Mark Mallouk (Rush, A Walk Among the Tombstones, the upcoming Everest) and Jez Butterworth (Edge of Tomorrow, Get On Up) provide the script. With such a stellar team, we never get a total failure, but it’s easy to have expected more.

Ratings Key

See it now! Buy the DVD! Quote lines at parties!

Definitely worth the price of admission

It’s useful as a distraction

Maybe if someone else pays and you need a nap

Slightly worse than eternal damnation

There are several moments to take this good story and add momentum. It could’ve skipped from their childhood to the deal they struck to the final years. Then, Bulger’s and Connolly’s unholy alliance would’ve been tighter and more emotionally fulfilling. I’m not sure how many random murders and beat-downs we need to see; we get it – Bulger is a bad dude.

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