A common criticism of the biographical picture is that it takes too many creative liberties, sharing little resemblance with the events that inspired it; but sometimes, such deeds are necessary to make a film, and its story, entertaining. If that weren’t to happen, chances are the movie would be as dull as this one.
In the 20th century, America’s Federal Bureau of Investigations was having immense difficulty regulating the activities of the country’s criminal underbelly. This issue was most prevalent in Boston, Massachusetts, which was under the control of two separate, feuding gangs: the Italian Mafia in the city’s North, and the Irish mob – known as the “Winter Hill Gang” – to the South. While both groups were causing headaches, it was the Mafia that authorities most desired to see quelled.
FBI agent John Connelly (Joel Egerton) has a resolution to the issue, and it involves the cooperation of Winter Hill leader, and childhood friend, James “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp). Connelly’s plan would see his organisation and Bulger’s gang form an alliance to target the Mafia and bring its dominance to an end; in return, the Irish mob would be freed from persecution by the Bureau and, theoretically, have full control of Boston’s underworld.
Connelly first tries contacting the mobster through his brother, Senator William Bulger (Benedict Cumberbatch) who is revealed to be clean of Jimmy’s dealings. Eventually, a meeting is arranged with the felonious Bulger, who agrees to Connelly’s proposal. This unholy partnership between the FBI and the Winter Hill Gang would continue for decades, effectively allowing the latter to flourish without having to fear retribution from either the Mafia or the government.
While the potential is there for Black Mass to be an absorbing tale, the picture proves to be little more than a dramatic re-enactment of past events, with no climax, twists or otherwise to maintain the viewer’s interest – it’s as though the film is merely retelling events as they happened, failing to make full use of its artistic licence. What’s desperately needed is an unforeseen conflict for the characters to overcome, one that can keep the audience on the edge of its seat.
The adequacy of Black Mass does not cease there. The pacing is deliberately, unnecessarily slow, diminishing what little excitement the movie contains; the cinematography is bland, making the environments of Boston and surrounds look lifeless; and the orchestral score, written by the otherwise talented Tom “Junkie XL” Holkenborg, adds nothing to the visuals by being utterly monotonous. In short, there are no flourishes to be found, and resultingly, the film is left with no personality whatsoever.
There is an interesting story here, but one gets the sense that a feature-length, dramatised narrative is not the best way of telling it. For material like this to be truly engaging, it would need to be produced in the form of a documentary – either in short form, or as a series. Or, better yet, one could read Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill’s book of the same name, which recalls these events in-depth. Doing so may lack the excitement of a cinematic experience, but at least the facts can be delivered without fuss.
Salvaging the movie from the depths of mundanity is Johnny Depp, whose portrayal of Jimmy Bulger brings the character to life – he’s the source of the film’s tension and suspense for the majority of the run-time, with his croaky, sinister voice being enough to instil fear in anybody. Depp’s performance is one of the best of his career, being just enough to stop it rapidly declining – provided his effort in The Crimes of Grindelwald doesn’t send him on another downward trajectory.
An otherwise unremarkable film, Black Mass is made enjoyable by seeing an actor become lost in his creepy, crooked character. Its story is a fascinating one, yet the viewer is left wishing it were more exciting, or told better.