Review: ‘Black Mass’ is a Master Class in Acting

Evan Slead ’16 / Emertainment Monthly Movies Editor

Johnny Depp in Black Mass. Photo Credit: Warner Bros.
Johnny Depp in Black Mass. Photo Credit: Warner Bros.
The Academy Awards will be upon the entertainment world within mere months which beckons the slate of Oscar contending films to emerge. Director Scott Cooper has thrown his hat into the ring with the Boston based crime thriller Black Mass, but this is not his first foray into the competition for the golden statue. His 2009 film Crazy Heart landed Jeff Bridges the Oscar for best actor that year, as well as a nomination for best supporting actress for Maggie Gyllenhaal. 2013’s Out of the Furnace was also a clear attempt to make waves, however the story didn’t lend itself to garner any recognition. Black Mass seems to be the clear indication that Cooper is an actor’s director as the film itself is nothing to write home about, but the performances are stellar and rounded to a tee.
Boston in the 1970’s was a bevy of crime, specifically within South Boston. This is in large part due to the mafia style crime lords running the north end of the city versus the equally vicious “Southies”. The most notable crime boss, James “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp), ran South Boston with ice in his veins and a political savvy that would metaphorically rival Marlon Brando’s character in The Godfather. Black Mass retells the events of Whitey’s reign in Boston and his affiliation with both local politics and even the FBI. His brother, William Billy Bulger (Benedict Cumberbatch), working as an active state senator would receive inside information from Whitey. On the flip side, FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), coerces Whitey into an informant role due to their previous history of growing up Southies together. As the north end crime lords are losing their footing due to the new alliance, Whitey finds himself gaining more control over the underbelly of the city, but this comes with its sacrifices. As each grown up Southie finds more power they also find a new form of corruption that would ultimately lead to imprisonment and Whitey would officially become one the FBI’s top ten most wanted individuals.
Joel Edgerton and Johnny Depp in Black Mass. Photo Credit: Warner Bros.
Joel Edgerton and Johnny Depp in Black Mass. Photo Credit: Warner Bros.
The greatest strength of the film comes from the cast. As the film unfolds it is told from various points of view with a large cast of characters and notable actors including Corey Stoll, Dakota Johnson, Kevin Bacon, Peter Sarsgaard, and Adam Scott. While many of these performers do not get more than ten minutes of screen time, they all deliver an impact that keeps the film feeling alive. Sarsgaard seems to have a real world fear built into his psyche that permeates the screen leading the viewer to know that his demise will come at any second. Even smaller roles, like the short scenes with Juno Temple, reveal an attention to capturing the reality of the time as Temple manages to portray fear, humor, confusion, and seduction within a matter of minutes.
The mass appeal to this film undeniably goes to Johnny Depp. A creative force that has a lovable but sometimes contentious ability to become different characters, Depp thankfully transcends his own flaws to melt perfectly into the very real Whitey Bulger. He is known for his over the top performances, but his transformation into Bulger was surprisingly subdued and angelic. There is a controlled chaos lurking behind his eyes that never fully reaches its boiling point; a sign that Depp understood the need for a realistic portrayal of a man consumed by his need for power. Joel Edgerton as agent Connolly also manages to mold his character into one that could believably work for the FBI but have a target on his back due to his dark upbringing. Edgerton plays him as a child lashing out at the system while trying to fit in any way he possibly can.
Dakota Johnson and Johnny Depp in Black Mass. Photo Credit: Warner Bros.
Dakota Johnson and Johnny Depp in Black Mass. Photo Credit: Warner Bros.
The problem with the film, however, is that the narrative never truly impacts in the way that it should. Jumping from police procedural interviews to current time, and then moving forward several years in time becomes muffled for the viewer. Once a lesson is learned by a character the time flows ahead several years and forces a reset of how the characters should be viewed. There also seemed to be the key element of tension missing from the overall run of the film. There are moments sprinkled throughout to depict the fear of that period in history, but they are too few and far between to man handle the viewer.
A best picture nomination may be in the future for Black Mass but that typically happens as a precaution when the cast is strong. The more interesting aspect of this film will be to see if it will fill several of the slots for best actor/actress and supporting actor/actress.
Overall Grade: B-
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