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Black Mass
Film Reviews by Amy Diaz

09/24/15
By Amy Diaz adiaz@hippopress.com



Black Mass (R)

Johnny Depp and a pair of blue contact lenses play James “Whitey” Bulger in Black Mass, a biopic of the notorious Boston criminal that feels less like a story and more like a timeline of events.
Following Bulger from the 1970s through the mid-1990s, the movie focuses on the relationship between Bulger and John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), an FBI agent and childhood friend. As the film tells it, Connolly, looking to get ahead at the FBI, proposes an alliance with Bulger. Bulger acts as an informant about the criminal underworld of Boston, specifically with regard to the Mafia, and Connolly and the FBI look the other way while Bulger, whose criminal endeavors at the time were centered mainly in South Boston, goes on about his business. “His business” is, according to the deal with the FBI, not supposed to include drugs or murder but, hey, who really reads their terms and conditions agreements? Bulger mostly gives crumbs to the FBI and Connolly pumps up reports on Bulger to make him appear more valuable than he really is. After years of seeming to get a pass from Connolly and his increasingly uneasy colleagues (played by Kevin Bacon, David Harbour and Adam Scott), Bulger and his deal eventually face trouble from a new Assistant U.S. Attorney (Corey Stoll) who decides to go after not just Whitey Bulger but the FBI as well.
I think the central problem with Black Mass, the one that gets in the way of its being a really in-depth study of Bulger or his crimes or how it all fit into the bigger picture of Boston in the last quarter of the 20th century, is that everybody involved is still alive. (Or, you know, everybody who wasn’t murdered.) The storytelling shortcuts and dramatic flourishes one expects  — who knows what when, the exact nature of their motives, a broader picture of crimes that are committed and how —  could probably get a filmmaker sued if he were too flourishy and took too much dramatic license. A perfect example is the character of Billy Bulger, Whitey’s younger brother and president of the Massachusetts state senate during much of this time, played here by an underused Benedict Cumberbatch. All tight-lipped smiles and silences, Cumberbatch’s performance is so nothing that all it really does is acknowledge the existence of Billy. We get no insight on their relationship. And the movie drops in details — Whitey Bulger winning the lottery, for example — that it then never really explains or gives context.
Perhaps if you grew up in the Boston area, the bare-bones events could be filled in with the stories, the background you bring into the theater with you. But as a person coming to the movie with very little knowledge about the man, I felt like the story I was watching was incomplete and the characters were thinly sketched. We get moments in Bulger’s life, people he knew float in and out, but we never get a sense of what it all means or what drives most of the characters.
For all that Black Mass can loosely be described as a Bulger biopic, Connolly ultimately becomes the central character of the movie, the character we know the most about. The movie shows him as a recognition-hungry peacock with a sycophantic admiration for Bulger, who was a childhood hero. Though the most fully realized character in the movie, he also at times verges on cartoony, which makes the FBI’s tolerance of him and the obvious criminality he was protecting seem nonsensical. 
It’s overly simplistic to say that I liked this movie better when it was fictionalized and called The Departed. But ultimately, even with the Depp performance (which never quite seems as good as the movie thinks it is), Black Mass feels like just a pile of facts, interesting facts sure, but facts not quite stitched together.  C+
Rated R for brutal violence, language throughout, some sexual references and brief drug use. Directed by Scott Cooper with a screenplay by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth (from a book by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill), Black Mass is two hours and two minutes long and distributed by Warner Bros.





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