1. Whatever your thoughts on The Departed or The Town—the modern Boston mob/crime thrillers that all modern Boston mob/crime thrillers are measured against—it is undeniable that everyone involved was deeply invested in both. Matt Damon had been waiting his whole life to play a character like his Departed rat; I likewise have zero doubt that Mark Wahlberg recites his Departed dialogue and flexes into the mirror when he’s alone at night. (The Town is a series of shots of Ben Affleck shirtless and a bird’s eye view of Boston that happen to be occasionally interrupted by a terrific thriller; it’s the movie Affleck must have daydreamed himself starring in in middle school.) You can tell that these movies are profoundly felt by the participants, and it leads them an authenticity that can’t be faked. The movie feels like theirs.
Whereas, for all its strengths, Black Mass feels, more than anything, like actors playing dress-up. Johnny Depp gets teeth implants and a crazy white-haired wig, and you applaud him for it: He looks like Whitey Bulger. But he never feels like Whitey Bulger, or even someone who has ever even been to Boston, really. Benedict Cumberbatch does his best to nail the Boston accent, and he does fine, sure, but there isn’t a second you aren’t 100 percent aware that he’s a Brit pretend to be a neighborhood Southie. It gives the film a model-house vibe. It’s watching actors pat each other on the back in a closed-off environment that exists only in the film.
2. Depp plays Bulger, the Boston crime lord who was able to get away with his litany of crimes against humanity because he was an “informer” for the FBI. (He didn’t actually give them any real info and basically played them all for dopes; Jack Nicholson’s character in The Departed is inspired by Bulger, too.) We meet a cavalcade of actors excited to hang around Depp when he’s not in Mortdecai Mode — some are Bulger’s henchmen (including Jesse Plemons, in a role that might have been larger at some point) and some are the cops out to get him (including an amusingly mustachioed Adam Scott). We meet Bulger’s brother, a State Senator played by Cumberbatch, who may be aiding his psychopath brother but definitely doesn’t want to know any details, and also meet the now FBI agent (Joel Edgerton) who grew up with them as “Southie kids” and now works within the bureau to help Bulger get away with everything. Everyone works very hard on their accents, and none of them look like they could name a single Red Sox outfielder.
3. The movie features a bunch of “actorly” scenes that work in the moment but don’t add up to much of a whole. Dakota Johnson, who might actually be the most natural, instinctive performer in the cast, plays the mother of Bulger’s son and has a scene that brings out the angriest, rawest emotion Depp has shown in years. She then disappears from the movie. (Women do that a lot in this movie.) Peter Saarsgard has a high-energy walk-on as a Miami drug addict who makes the mistake of doing business with Bulger, and, like with Johnson, you miss him when he’s gone. But the movie never quite collects much momentum with all its isolated scenes of mayhem. The FBI never seems like a credible threat to Bulger, and, as his childhood friend protecting him from within but feeling increasingly compromised, Edgerton never seems like a worthy enough character to invest much in. He’s so ridiculous and so obviously lying to protect Bulger that you wonder how he ever got a job in law enforcement in the first place; you question the competence of an FBI squad that can’t notice the guy with MOLE tattooed across his forehead. The drama that was inherent in The Departed — the profound betrayal that bubbles beneath every word — never connects here. You don’t believe these people have really known each other for decades, so their dissolution of those bonds has little effect. These are just actors talking to each other.
4. I’m sorry I keep bringing up The Departed, by the way, but it’s sort of inevitable. This is after all essentially the same story, in the same locale. And if you’re going to make a movie about Whitey Bulger while an Oscar-winning film from Martin Scorsese is still fresh in our minds, you better have something new to bring to the table. Frankly, I’m not sure director Scott Cooper (Out of the Furnace) has enough to justify all the trouble. His style is straightforward, and his strategy to get out of the actors’ way and just capture what happens. That’s all fine and good, but, like those actors, he ends up like an outsider interloping rather than someone who understands this world. Characters float in and out of the narrative — there maybe just be too much cast for a story this spare — and it never builds up into the crescendo it needs to. A film like this, with so many players lying to each other and themselves, all in the orbit of a murderous lunatic at the center, needs to feel like the tightening of a vice. Instead it just sort of floats along, pausing when an actor does something particularly interesting, then moving along to the next one.
5. This leads us to Depp. Depp has appeared as so many weirdos for so long that you feel a temptation to praise him just for playing a normal adult with a heart rate and shoes and a social security number. But as played by Depp, Bulger is as otherworldly as the Mad Hatter or Edward Scissorhands. Depp certainly does his best to project menace, and there’s an oddness to his performance that keeps you watching. (The movie informs us in a throwaway line that Bulger took part in dozens of LSD experiments to get out of Alcatraz, and Depp seems to have taken that and run with it.) But it never steps out of the strange uncanny valley that Depp’s career has become, an inability to connect with actual human beings on an organic level. Depp never really digs into what makes Bulger tick, what his motivations might be other than “be a magnetic psychopath,” and thus the movie never propels forward. It’s just a camera pointed at a massive movie star doing another in his series of performance art pieces, and everyone sort of circling around him, partly cheering him on, partly not sure what exactly they’e supposed to do when standing next to him. This is the sort of movie that actors love, and the rest of us just kind of oblige. Black Mass is an effective Actor Delivery Device. But it’s not much of a movie.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.
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