Black Mass (2015) Misunderstood and Underrated: Johnny’s Back

Black Mass is the return to form of Johnny Depp and is his first film of real quality for a long, long time.

First of all ignore any critic who takes issue with Johnny Depp’s makeup, which there seem to be a surprising number, because this is completely irrelevant. Ok, he still doesn’t look that much like Whitey Bulger, but he does appear striking and menacing, which is kind of the point.

Along with most people I fully believe that Depp should be vilified for continuing to do Pirates of the Caribbean and ever making The Lone Ranger: but you cannot hold these against him when watching Black Mass. This isn’t Gangsters of the Caribbean.

If this was any other actor they would be being praised for how they had “transformed their look”; I can only assume that most reviewers went in having already formulated their opinion and refused to reconsider, because both Johnny Depp and Black Mass are brilliant.

Whitey Bulger is a much quieter and more considered gangster than most we see. Often he lets others do the talking and the film is all the more enjoyable because of it. He has moments of genuine tenderness and at times appears much more humane and run-of-the-mill than we might expect. For the majority of the film however, after we have seen his true nature, you can’t help but remain transfixed on Bulger: searching for a tiny hint of expression or slight twitch of movement which might suggest what he is thinking or what he will do next.

Sometimes what Bulger does next is quite violent; but I take issue with those who claim Black Mass is gratuitous: virtually all gangster films are like this and Black Mass is actually comparatively understated. Yes, there is murder, and at times Bulger and Co look quite cool while they carry out these violent and bloody deeds: but there is nothing comparable with the vice scene in Casino, the knife attack in Goodfellas, or the chainsaw scene in Scarface. In fact one of the most refreshing parts about Black Mass is that it (mostly) sets itself apart from previous gangster films.

There are aspects that lends itself to Goodfellas (the worst and only weak scene is a lame imitation of Joe Pesci’s “funny how?” sequence, which would have been much stronger if Bulger hadn’t been joking) but Black Mass doesn’t contain anything along the lines of “ever since I was a kid I wanted to be a gangster.” We never see anything of the characters when they were younger and we get little back story. This is a smarter choice than has thus far received credit, because Bulger only enjoys this virtual immunity from prosecution due to his childhood friendship with now FBI agent John Connolly, played convincingly by Joel Edgerton.

It would have been easy to draw heavily on this, but thankfully the writers moved passed this and show Bulger’s and Connolly’s actions for what they were: a business opportunity. Connolly is the central component to the story and this is rightly reflected in the amount of screen-time he receives: by splitting the film between Bulger and Connolly, Black Mass is kept ticking along at the right pace, and Bulger maintains an air of mystique sometimes lost through over exposure.

The other key player in all this is Whitey’s brother Billy, the Massachusetts State Senator, played slickly by Benedict Cumberbatch. This is one of the most disappointing aspects of the film though, because the relationship between Whitey and Billy is given little real attention and had a lot of potential. As it is, Billy keeps himself to himself and has little to do with Whitey other than during family occasions: it helps to maintain the film’s low-key tone in this regard, which I am fully in favour of, but I would have preferred to have seen a bit more.

Black Mass then is much better than the lukewarm reviews it has mainly received and is closer in nature to Mystic River than Goodfellas. It is a tight-knit story, focusing closely on human relationships, the struggle to succeed, and the eventual price of this success on both sides.

Unlike the majority of gangster films Black Mass does not focus upon the unrelenting drive of the individual, but gives an unapologetic account of the lives these men lead, and how corruption in the system allows them to flourish. Whitey Bulger was simply a violent man who took advantage of an opportunity which came his way: he doesn’t buy a massive mansion, he doesn’t collapse into a heap of cocaine, and he doesn’t have an affair with a ludicrously attractive woman.  He is largely unchanged by his success and the catalysts for change in his character come from much more intimate and human tragedies, than due to any blind lust for power.

Black Mass is a well acted and stylishly directed snapshot of how Whitey Bulger rose to and lost his power. It is a misunderstood and therefore also underrated film. The majority of the attention it will receive will be mainly because of Johnny Depp and it is unlikely to receive any acclaim come award season.

None of this matters though, because Black Mass is still one of my favourite films of the year.

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