Tweetable Takeaway: Black Mass has an engrossing storyline even if its characters don’t quite engage. Tweet
In Johnny Depp’s latest role, he plays a character more grounded in reality, though just as steeped in makeup and mythos as any of his other characters. As super-gangster James “Whitey” Bulger, Depp wears his hair thinned and slicked back, and pops in contacts that veritably glow in the shadows. That or they used the “evil incarnate” filter during post-production. That said, Depp’s performance shines in Black Mass, a thoroughly engrossing film that follows a criminal’s rise to power and the corruption that helped him get there.
Joel Edgerton plays John Connolly, an FBI agent who grows up with James Bulger in South Boston. Connolly talks with Bulger in an attempt to get Bulger to provide information on other criminals. Bulger is disgusted by the notion of being an informant, but realizes there may be benefit in ratting out his enemies while keeping a sort of immunity for his own gang. Amazingly and sadly enough, that’s exactly what happens. Connolly gets permission to take Bulger on as an informant so long as Bulger doesn’t engage in illegal activity of his own, but of course Bulger’s criminal activity only skyrockets. Any time something incriminating comes to light, Connolly is there to brush it under the rug or counter with how helpful Bulger’s information is. The film bounces back and forth between the two worlds of criminal and law, leaving the audience to wonder just how long can Bulger and Connolly get away with these antics?
Johnny Depp is ostensibly the star, but it’s Edgerton’s character who provides most of the dramatic heavylifting. Depp mostly has to slink around being evil, and he does so with aplomb. Joel Edgerton as the man who continuously fends off suspicious bosses and conflicted colleagues is far more interesting. The movie never gives a clear explanation for Connolly’s actions, however. He gives plenty of speeches about how he and Bulger grew up together. It doesn’t seem too likely that’s the only thing going on, however. Perhaps Connolly was only trying to do his job better, get some real information on criminals, and before he knew it he was in too deep to turn back.
Like Bulger, though, Connolly never shows much doubt about the course of his actions. In that way neither are especially dynamic, at a certain point in the movie there’s no question about what each man will do. Black Mass remains entertaining for no other reason than to see the noose continually tightening around Connolly and Bulger, but it would have been an even greater film had these characters contained a little more depth, or been explored in more intimate detail. Without knowing what motivates John Connolly, it’s tough to get invested and know what’s at stake for him. Sure, we know getting caught is bad. But that would be bad for anyone.
What do the events of the movie mean for Connolly? To be the most lauded FBI agent? The thrill of doing bad stuff and not getting caught? It’s entirely possible the filmmakers didn’t want to make too many leaps of character judgment, and so left the characters up to the facts of their real-life counterparts. But in doing so, we’re also left with a film that isn’t as compelling as it could be.
There’s still plenty of compelling story to go around, even if the characters don’t quite enthrall. Seeing how far Bulger and Connolly get away only makes their eventual downfall all the more satisfying. And Black Mass’s particular angle breathes fresh air into the gangster pic as well. By now we’ve seen countless gangsters rise to power and fall; here we get to see both a corrupt FBI agent and gangster journey that trajectory as well. Black Mass doesn’t set any new standards, but it manages to crackle pretty well at the ones already in place.
I give Black Mass 3.5 demon contact lenses out of 5
Score: 3.5 out of 5
Wil Loper | Contributor