Black Mass is about incompetent FBI agents and that’s really it…no, no not really of course. The film harps on themes like blood is thicker than water, evil triumphs when good men do nothing, etc. In spite of this the film fails at anything meaningful because none of the characters really connect with the audience.
Black Mass is centered on several individuals who grew up together in South Boston. These “Southie Kids”, are now in powerful positions to help local small time hustler Jimmy Bulger in his rise to Boston Overlord. Johnny Depp stars as Jimmy “Whitey” Bulger, a borderline sociopathic, murderous, crime lord in South Boston. That this is a “normal” role for him illustrates how eclectic Depp’s acting choices have been in recent years. Depp is compulsively watchable and does a great job at harboring a sense of violent unpredictability. At any given moment Bulger makes you feel that he could fly off the handle and beat someone to death for something trivial. His eyes are cold, menacing, and soulless. John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), a childhood friend and now FBI agent, is primarily responsible for Bulger’s rise to criminal prominence.
The Bureau is so desperate on taking down the Italian Mafia that they are willing to bring Bulger, a known criminal, in as a Top Echelon ‘protected’ Informant. Bulger consistently claims that he is not a rat (echoing The Departed, a much better film). It’s bitterly ironic that he would choose this “alliance” as he and Connolly call it since he hates informants and inflicts ruthless violence of anyone suspected of being a rat against him. Bulger, for his part, is reluctant to give any information, and much more interested in taking over Boston and consolidating his power, which unfortunately the movie really doesn’t show in any detail. Thus Connolly is forced to glean information from other informants and credit it to Bulger just to keep their scheme afloat. It makes you wonder exactly what Connolly is gaining from this arrangement and/or just what Bulger did for him when they were kids. Undoubtedly Connolly gets money from Bulger, but the consequences for his foolhardy actions only led to predictable disastrous results. Throughout the film it leaves viewers constantly questioning the value of their “alliance” and its enormous risk for Connolly.
Mass does a very poor job at showing why FBI agent John Connolly risks his entire career, his family, and life for this horrible man. This is mostly because the characterization, direction, and narrative are poor. You never completely believe that these actors are Southie kids (Leitch, Will), and the aforementioned motivation of Connolly is weak at best. It characterizes the FBI as hilariously inept and never really a credible threat (Leitch, Will); thereby allowing Bulger to ascend to the status of Boston Crime Lord for almost twenty years before a new DA, a guilty conscience, and a Boston Globe story bring everything to a crashing halt. Additional scenes showing/connecting the web of lies among the FBI, Bulger, and other enforcement agencies would demonstrate their precarious positions and invest the viewers in the characters and their fates. Unfortunately none of this is depicted.
This film unfortunately plays like a parody of The Departed (Leitch, Will). The actors look like they’re just having fun giving their best “Southie” accent or just trying to watch and react to what Depp is doing in each scene (Leitch, Will). Unlike The Departed however, there isn’t even one strong female character in the film. I counted a total of four women and they come and go almost as quickly as they are introduced. The list is as follows:
1. Bulger’s girlfriend who disappears a quarter of the way through after a tragedy.
2. Bulger’s mother who dies midway through the film and has, at most, five lines, and was also in The Departed coincidentally.
3. A whore who is introduced and killed in the same scene for possibly speaking to the police about Bulger.
4. Connolly wife (Julianne Nicholson), who manages to hang around the longest and mainly wags her finger and acts disapprovingly of her husband. She is menaced and scared by Bulger, before ultimately disappearing from the film after she kicks Connolly out of their house.
Mass is never dull or boring, but unfortunately it’s going to be compared to The Departed, or even the documentary, Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger. As a whole the movie is mediocre. If you want an imitation of The Departed with less technical skill this is the film for you. The acting is fine, and women are few and far between. The scenes are disjointed, uneven, and the narrative unfocused as it jumps through selected highlights of the brutal twenty year criminal career of Bulger. Fans of Johnny Depp will go see it but other than his performance the movie isn’t worth your time.
TLDR: Black Mass is an uneven and unfocused rehash of The Departed, its nothing new or special except for a compelling performance by Johnny Depp. (2/5 Stars).
Leitch, Will. "Black Mass Plays Like A Boston-Mob-Thriller Parody." Rev. of Black Mass. n.d.: n. pag. The Concourse.Deadspin. Gawker Media, 17 Sept. 2015. Web. Sept.-Oct. 2015.