Despite stellar performances, Scott Cooper’s Black Mass falls just short of its potential
When you hear of a film based on one of the most notorious American mobsters — James “Whitey” Bulger — including an ensemble cast of Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton and Benedict Cumberbatch to name a few, you expect a film that may make its place in the echelon of greats such as Goodfellas or Casino. However, Scott Cooper’s latest directorial venture, Black Mass, largely fails to deliver on the ambitious promises it makes.
The story is about the Winter Hill Gang of Boston which operated at its peak during the 80s and controlled most organised crime in the city. Depp portrays the infamous boss Whitey Bulger — paranoid racketeer, unflinching murderer and dedicated family man — in one of his most convincing performances of recent times, with Dakota Johnson as his wife Lindsey. Cumberbatch, meanwhile, plays Whitey’s elder brother and state senator, William Bulger, in a forgettable supporting role.
The narrative opens in the present day with former Winter Hill gang members being interviewed in custody about their operations. In 1975, Whitey finds his hold over criminal activities in the city threatened by the growing power of the Angiulo family, who kill off a member of his gang. He is approached by John Connolly (Edgerton), a Boston native and official of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Connolly, being a childhood acquaintance of the Bulgers, manages to convince Whitey to make an ‘alliance’ with the FBI against the Angiulos. In return, Bulger is to enjoy the protection offered by Connolly through the FBI and continue his activities unchecked.
What starts off as a mutually beneficial deal for both parties, however, begins to spiral out of control when Whitey’s relentless ambitions become too hard for Connolly to keep covering up. Increasing pressure from within the FBI, a string of murders from Boston to Miami and Whitey’s inability to deliver high-profile targets results in an unravelling of deals and allegiances. Alongside the inevitable crime and violence, Black Mass also has strong themes of community, loyalty and home, with some of the most powerful family moments surfacing at the death of Whitey’s mother and the illness of his son, or through the strain on Connolly’s marriage due to his involvement with the mob.
The film brings us Joel Edgerton’s first notable performance since The Great Gatsby, and the actor who seems to be on the rise in the past four years with commercial successes like Zero Dark Thirty, along with his own directorial debut. Without a doubt, though, the unquestionable highlight of the film is the steely-eyed acting of Depp, who looks every bit as intimidating as Bulger was rumoured to be; his compelling work forces many to hark back to some of his acclaimed earlier films.
As mafia films go, however, Black Mass adds almost nothing to what has already been seen. Its plotlines are predictable and the directorial style is an attempt at emulating some of the greats by Scorsese or Coppola, but with nowhere near the same effect. As with Crazy Heart, director Scott Cooper seems to be relying on the stellar performances of his lead actors to salvage an otherwise average attempt. What we have as a result is a thrilling true story, a stellar cast and great potential that was blunted due to Cooper’s insistence on executing his projects as safely as he can. Black Mass is by no means a bad film — it is merely disappointing that it is not a great one.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, October 25th, 2015.