A stylised showcase of violence
Black Mass is interesting. I think that’s the word that perfectly sums up the film. The story of James ‘Whitey’ Bulger and his rise to crime kingpin of Boston captures and keeps your attention throughout the film though the narrative structure lets down this otherwise excellent film.
Johnny Depp is absolutely terrifying in the lead role. His performance is an absolutely masterclass and every minute he’s on-screen he is the focus of the attention. The film has you constantly attempting to read him. Read the subtle clues in his behaviour, trying to predict that moment that his nature changes and he explodes into a barrage of violence. The performance of his co-stars are also excellent with Rory Cochrane as Bulger’s second in command, Steve Flemmi, being the stand out for me.
The violence in the film is visceral and hard to watch at times. The reality of the story and the performances really bring this home and as the credit wash over you I wouldn’t be surprised to see many feeling sick. A big compliment for the film is that it feels real, the portrayal of the events feels accurate and has weight too it. Unfortunately I feel like that is the films downfall as well. It feels more like a documentary then a piece of entertainment. There is very few redeeming characters in the film, no ‘good guys’ just evil men, corruption, crime, greed and not much of anything else.
The film struggles with its pacing and this definitely lets it down. At times it’s hard to follow, there’s no clear building of intensity, the relationship between Bulgar and childhood friend and FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) is disjointed, the relationship shifts between fearful complaince and willing support very quickly and escalates without any real explanation. Ultimately their relationship is underdeveloped. Many aspects of the film felt underdeveloped and it leaves you slightly confused about how this monster was wrought.
One of the things particularly under explored was Bulgar’s mental state. The film hints at Bulgar’s time in prison and his participation in the MK-Ultra program where Bulgar was subjected to experiements with LSD by the CIA in their research on mind-control but it is a small aside. It’d probably take another three hours to explore that time in bulgar’s life but I’d have still liked to see more time spent exploring the potential effects this (and other things like the death of his child) had on Bulgar’s psychology.
In the end though the story is simply too interesting to let the weaknesses of the narrative distract. You’ll leave wanting to know more about this fascinating psychopath.