Black Mass Movie Review
Black Mass is a crime drama based on the true story of Whitey Bulger, the notorious Boston gangster and federal informant. Johnny Depp takes on the role of Bulger. After seeing the intense trailer for this movie, I was excited to see it. (It’s embedded below.) It’s the first Johnny Depp movie in a long time that I’ve been eager to see. So how did it measure up?
Like all movies, there’s good and bad. The best part is, predictably, Johnny Depp. Depp is fantastic (and terrifying) in the role. However, I’d rate the movie as “Good” but not “Great.” First, the pros.
This is easily the best Johnny Depp vehicle I’ve seen in a long time. With trash like Transcendence, Mortdecai, and The Lone Ranger, that’s not saying very much, however I did quite enjoy this film.
- The acting. Everyone turns up to give a good performance. Benedict Cumberbatch and Kevin Bacon nail their respective supporting roles. Leading stand outs are Rory Cochrane in a subdued tough guy role, Jesse Plemons as the up and comer, Joel Edgerton as the corrupt yet conflicted FBI lawman who grew up with the Bulgers, and of course, Johnny Depp as Bulger. Depp goes from quiet and friendly to menacing and psychotic on the turn of a dime. It’s beautiful to watch, and is a reminder of why Depp is considered one of the last great movie stars. I wish he’d take more roles like this and quit with the goofy costumes.
- The art department. The movie covers four decades, so the costume and prop departments had their work cut out for them. Each decade has its own flavor, but the gangsters are trapped in a 70s mindset. The costumes and hair styles are a subtle way to make this point. Small details like this help the audience to subconsciously relate to the characters. Well done.
- The tension. It’s always tough to build tension in a film based on a true story, because anyone who knows the story will already know how it ends. However, this film builds it well by embellishment. I’m sure the fantastic dinner scene never really happened, but you can cut the tension with a knife. I credit the director and the actors here. Immediately afterward, there’s a great scene with Depp passively aggressively threatening Joel Edgerton’s wife. The audience knows what Bulger is capable of, but they don’t know what exactly he’s going to do, or when. This is how tension is built up and it lasts throughout the entire run time.
I enjoyed this film. I didn’t love it. There are a few too many cons in this film that keep it in the “good” territory and prevent it from becoming one of the crime classics.
- The subplots. The movie has too many subplots that are meant to paint Bulger’s character, but some of them don’t go anywhere. The one that sticks out is the subplot involving Bulger’s son. The point was to show his humanity and that he was suffering from loss. This story thread could have easily been cut and swapped out with a story thread that had more to do with the larger story. There are many ways to convey a villain’s humanity that don’t involve a shoehorned family.
- Structure problems. The movie is structured as a series of flashbacks as told by Whitey’s gang. (They are being interviewed by the police in present day.) These interviews never really pay off in the way they could have, they sort of just exist for a time and then end to make way for the next one. Each one is its own contained story and I thought they could have been interwoven in a more interesting way, with different characters’ perspectives factored in and played off each other.
- The story balance. The most interesting part of the story was Whitey Bulger’s relationship with his childhood friend and contact in the FBI. (Joel Edgerton’s character.) I thought the movie could have focused more on this relationship and how it affected the gang and the bureau. Instead, the story jumped around a bit and tried to do too much. A more focused story on this relationship may have elevated the film from good to great. It would have also helped flesh out Edgerton’s character and shown his downfall in a more compelling way.
I’d recommend this movie to fans of crime thrillers, movies based on true stories, and fans of Johnny Depp. While not a crime classic, there’s plenty in here to enjoy and it’s a good way to spend two hours.
Story: ★★★ of 5
Drama: ★★★★½ of 5
Visuals: ★★★ of 5
Overall: ★★★½ of 5
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