Myths are predictable. Black Mass is not groundbreaking. It doesn’t shock or twist or subvert or even challenge. But storytelling is not a craft built on surprises. Depp’s vicious character of James “Whitey” Bulger is a classic gangster archetype. Charismatic and violently unstable, but also self-disciplined and (delusionally) conscientious. Meanwhile, Edgerton’s smooth and sly John Connolly (BTW about half the men in this movie are named “John”) is seemingly less principled than the monster who pulls him into the abyss. These are normal genre characters. What’s important is how fluently they speak to us about the nature of good and bad, and of loyalty and ethics.
Clean up your mess. Shot with visual and kinetic smoothness, and a calculated sense of polish, Black Mass often feels somewhat detached from its grisly and sticky subject matter. Those who focus on faces will be seamlessly enraptured, but visually attuned audience members may feel that the movie is vaguely overproduced, or even visually unremarkable. But while, on the aural channel, Junkie XL’s string-saturated score hums along competently, Cooper’s aversion to soaking the soundtrack with typical classic rock cornerstones leaves the film with a nicely restrained sound. It’s possibly his best decision.
What’s eating Whitey Bulger? Channeling Joe Pesci and Anthony Hopkins simultaneously, Depp embodies the typical gangster psychopath with a freshly physical flair, staring like a possessed owl from behind a layer of silicone. He is highly watchable, but not clean-cut or outwardly charming: if anything, Egerton’s snappy and slimy FBI agent Connolly is more of that character type than the mob boss himself. Filling in the gaps is Peter Sarsgaard, fidgety and anxious; Jesse Plemons, rough and tumble and rather swollen (his makeup is better than the lead actor’s); Marianne Connolly, freaked the hell out; Corey Stoll, straight-laced and sharp-witted; Dakota Johnson, trembling yet tenacious; Benedict Cumberbatch, not even English; and Rory Cochrane, detachedly conflicted. It’s an actor’s piece that belongs as much to the ensemble as to the front man. It doesn’t really belong to anyone else. Maybe the hairstylists. The 80’s were bangin’.