Movie Review: Black Mass

Rating: 2 Stars


Should I be holding Black Mass to the fire for not explaining to me why the title of the movie is called Black Mass? It sounds like the title for a sequel to Interstellar or Star Trek. It certainly has a ring to it, Star Trek: Black Mass.

Yes, I understand the book that was written based on the movie was called, “Black Mass”, and there’s probably some novel reason for it, but there’s no indication in the movie for the dumb and plain viewer that is me, which makes the Whitey Bulger story “Black Mass”. I could look it up, or use my context clues and assume that black is representative of bad, and mass is what humans are made of. Whitey is a pretty bad human being, this is true, but its ironic because the movie does much in the way of humanizing Whitey’s character.

As with any movie that is based on a true story, there’s bound to be a lot of perversion from the truth, and there’s no shortage of articles from People magazine and The Daily Beast that report dissatisfaction with the movie’s portrayal of Bulger, supporting cast, and the way certain scenes played out. Some of the “factual” accounts can be read here and here and here. Believe what you will. These article’s happen to be more interesting reads.

But despite what is real and what isn’t, Black Mass is underwhelming considering its source material. Certainly there’s violence, James “Whitey” Bulger is quite gruesome, but there’s not too many gripping moments. Or much to grip on in general in the way of dynamic characters and sequential plot.

James “Whitey” Bulger is a mobster that goes from small-time to kingpin of the South side of Boston according to the movie. He makes a deal with an FBI agent he grew up with to wipe out his competitors for free reign on Boston and his own criminal exploits. It’s quite simple and the evolving mess develops really slowly and there’s moments where interest became lacking. The plotline develops in a way where scene’s become obvious. Develop relationship here, develop character here, strangle innocent prostitute here, foreshadow everything going to shit.

Johnny Depp does a great character dive into creating a mobster that is cunning, has smooth wordplay, all the while there’s no semblance of Depp at all, because he’s completely embodied this character. For those curious about my thought process when I hand out ratings, Johnny Depp as Whitey was worth about one and a half of the two star’s I gave Black Mass. I give stars out based on what I appreciate in the film, and Depp’s performance was a performance I can appreciate.

Bulger’s FBI connection John Connolly plays a role that sparks interest but never goes beyond somewhat insulting my intelligence. Connolly’s protection of Bulger’s exploits seemed so obvious that even I thought, “okay, there’s something the movie is not telling me about the FBI and their informant deal with Bulger.”

Maybe the FBI cover up wasn’t interesting enough? Then again, the FBI cover up is a very fascinating topic to broach in of itself. For all the dragging on of character’s yapping at each other about this that and the other, there was some context I felt I was missing.

As I said early on, Bulger is humanized in moments that include the premature death of his son due to Reyes Syndrome, and the death of his mother. Bulger has two conversation pieces that were the ‘gripping’ moments in the movie, one to his son, the other at a dinner meeting between him and the two FBI agents. The rest of the film, civilly tame considering the circumstances. Whitey Bulger was quick about his violence for the most part. There was at least two times someone got shot that I had no idea who they were and why it was important.

I’m not of the mindset that because Black Mass is a mobster movie in Boston that it has to go The Departed route, but The Departed knew what it was, and Black Mass was somewhat tied down by this need to be based on a true story, and provide a gritty realism with a humanizing aspect, but also depict White Bulger as the violent criminal he is. It doesn’t work in this film. Some might say forced, I would comment that Black Mass missed its mark.

I didn’t mention the prominent brother of Bulger until now, his name is Billy Bulger. And he’s just kind of there. His existence does comment on Whitey’s influence being that Billy is the most powerful politician in Massachusetts, but other than that he’s just kind of whatever when he’s on screen.

In the end I guess there’s no shame in being the second best Bostonian mobster movie in existence.

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