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New Release Review - BLACK MASS

The story of notorious mobster James 'Whitey' Bulger.


Review by Eric Hillis (@hilliseric)

Directed by: Scott Cooper

Starring: Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dakota Johnson, Kevin Bacon, Jesse Plemons, Peter Sarsgard, Corey Stoll


"The film spans roughly 20 years, but it seems the production and costume designers weren't privy to this fact, with characters sporting sideburns and mustaches in 1995, and displaying no signs of aging. So bored was I by Black Mass, I aged more over its two hours than its players did over its story's two decade timeline."





As an Irishman, few things rankle with me more than the misconceptions of my land and people so often found in American cinema. Black Mass, the true story of notorious Oirish-American mobster James 'Whitey' Bulger, has a few moments designed to make Irish viewers cringe in their seats. At one point, a highly educated character who really should no better, speaks of Saint Patrick as a great Irishman who freed his country from the British. As any Irish person can tell you, Patrick was himself British, not Irish, and died long before Ireland was under British rule. Then there's a sequence involving a visit to Whitey from some members of the IRA who tell him "the old country thanks you!" What? The old country? No Irish person would ever refer to their country in that way. This isn't Sicily!
Whitey is played here by Johnny Depp, except of course he isn't really. Depp has little interest in recreating the character of the infamous mobster. For Depp, Black Mass is simply another chance to prance around in elaborate makeup. When we glimpse him first, Depp is clad in a black leather coat, its collar pulled up around his neck. Coupled with his balding scalp, Depp resembles Max Schreck's Nosferatu more than any real life character. Later, while carrying out one of Whitey's many executions, Depp's eyes appear to fog over as his lips unfurl to reveal a set of yellowed fangs, which he's only short of sinking into his victim.
When he's not playing Dracula, Depp gives his impression of Joe Pesci from Goodfellas, complete with an "I'm fuckin' with ya!" dinner table scene that made me want to remove my shoe and hurl it at the screen. Scott Cooper's film never really gets into the head of its subject, as it seems more interested in churning out a conveyor belt loaded with mob movie cliches. There's also that well worn staple of the wife who "can't take this life no more," essayed by an underused Dakota Johnson. Actually, there's two such harangued wives - the second is played by Julianne Nicholson as the other half of FBI man John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), who controversially propped up Whitey in an attempt to take down the Italian mob.
Black Mass is as much Connolly's story as Bulger's, and Edgerton makes for a far more engaging presence than Depp, who really needs to get over the fact that nature blessed him with matinee idol looks and embrace it the way that other 1990s pretty boy, Brad Pitt, eventually did. The scenes shared between Depp and Edgerton are difficult to take seriously, as both actors seem to belong in movies of completely different tones. When the film takes us into the offices of the Boston FBI branch, we get some great work from a host of supporting actors like Kevin Bacon, Corey Stoll and David Harbour, but the scenes involving Bulger's crew resemble poorly conceived Sopranos fan fiction.
The biggest issue with Black Mass is its lack of focus. It rambles on without ever really deciding on what specific story it wants to tell, and from whose perspective. The opening scene fools us into assuming the movie is to be viewed through the eyes of Jesse Plemons' low level enforcer, but the character disappears 10 minutes in. The timeline is equally confusing. A title card initially tells us its 1975. Later, another inter-title reveals that we're now in the mid 1980s, but all the characters seem to be wearing the same clothes as when we first met them. The film spans roughly 20 years, but it seems the production and costume designers weren't privy to this fact, with characters sporting sideburns and mustaches in 1995, and displaying no signs of aging. So bored was I by Black Mass, I aged more over its two hours than its players did over its story's two decade timeline. 
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