It’s been a poor year for gangster cinema – Cell Magazine‘s Laurence Langan writes for Hollywood Hegemony on why Johnny Depp’s latest vehicle, Black Mass, does little to buck that trend.
You’re in the pub. Everyone’s talking. Politics, T.V or general gossip, it doesn’t matter. You’re having a good old gab. You jump in to the conversation with a flourish, monologuing passionately about the way the world is. Cement solid points and clever informed witticisms flow forth. Then, as you go on, you sort of lose track of what you’re saying. First you’re generalising. Now you’re quoting something out of context. Then you’re just plain making something up. Soon, you trail off and mutter a sort of open ended, vacuous moral and quickly pretend you need to go and use the facilities. Exit stage left.
This kind of social awkwardness is what watching Black Mass is a bit like. A muddled, pointless ramble with zero self-awareness.
It charts the rise and fall of James ‘Whitey’ Bulger (Johnny Depp), Irish mob kingpin in Boston, U.S.A. Early in his career he gains de-facto immunity from childhood friend, F.B.I agent John Connelly (Joel Egerton) in exchange for information on other organised crime figures. Connelly’s more interested in loyalty to his old neighbourhood than to getting convictions, and as Whitey gains more and more power and his personal life drives him to become more and more violent, the empire starts to come apart at the seams.
There’s a couple of likeable performances aside from Depp. Kevin Bacon is reliably watchable, as is Joel Egerton. And if you’ve got to know Benedict Cumberbatch through his quintessentially British roles, you’ll be impressed by his transformation into a slick and street smart Bostonian politician, Bulger’s brother. Jesse Plemons continues to show off his mercurial talent. His trademark unsettling shiftiness mixes well with the naive thug he plays in this. I doubt he’ll just be ‘Todd from Breaking Bad’ for much longer.
But of course the films centrepiece is a prosthetic wearing Depp, who’s in entertaining form. The first third of the film works because of this performance and some well-paced plotting. Bulger is a died in the wool, local Boston boy. But beneath the community spirit and games of gin rummy with ma lies a brilliant criminal mind and a ruthless mean streak. Depp conveys this with an understated, razor sharp mood of threat that’s pin point in its accuracy and able to be turned on and off at the drop of a hat. The script (though mostly as dull as the rest of the film) conveys a gangster that knew his role inside out. Transformative blue contact lenses are also a boon.
But as entertaining as it first is, it’s not particularly ground-breaking. You can find this sort of character in any number of Scorsese films and better, more original performances elsewhere in Depp’s canon.
Then, as the movie fails to tell us anything new or anything interesting about gangsters, the lead role wears thin. It’s just not really special enough to hold the rest of the shabby, dull pieces of the film together. It’s fine to make a genre piece, but you have to bring something significant to the table and Black Mass flat out refuses to do this. Instead, it rests on a bingo card of gangster go-tos; Dim-witted mob guys turning the air blue with slow banter. The thin line between the criminals and the ivory tower officials. Bloody, extended scenes of violence. Religious iconography. A period soundtrack mixed with an intermittent, melancholy string score. The American dream. The hypocrisy of said dream. Who’s a rat? Is he a rat? I’m no fuckin’ rat! When of course, he is a rat.
There’s an acute sense of laziness on the side of the filmmakers. Every job and piece of gangster-ing is flat and occasionally confusing. It leads to an atmosphere of the fuzzy and the forgettable. Most events usually lead to unimaginative murders that mean nothing to the audience. It’s exhaustingly dull. By the time everyone’s getting their just desserts, you’ve stopped caring. You’ll probably be just looking at your watch.
It’s so by the numbers that it doesn’t even work as fluffy entertainment. Details fade a few minutes after an ending that’s muted and empty, going through the motions.
The bottom line is that if you’ve seen more than two crime/gangster films, Black Mass will bore you.
That’s catastrophic, because if you like gangster films then you can point to half a dozen that rest on their laurels or don’t do anything particularly new and still manage to entertain, still manage to be significant. Black Mass doesn’t. Don’t bother seeing it.