Saturday 28 November 2015

Black Mass review

Black Mass has been hyped quite a lot, not least as a return to form for Jonny Depp. But it’s also a story about one of Boston’s most notorious crimelords, and one within living memory at that – James “Whitey” Bulger only went on the run in 1995, after all.

So, to start with the biggest selling point – Jonny Depp is a magnetic presence throughout. But you never quite forget that you’re watching Jonny Depp. And that’s a problem. It’s as mannered a performance as he’s given in many other films, but usually, that matches the film better. Here, it’s Depp playing a real person, and that real person never convinces.

There’s a scene where he’s sitting at the kitchen table with Benedict Cumberbatch (who plays Whitey’s Senator brother), and this shows the difference between the two. Cumberbatch comes across as far more natural and believable. Depp is far more mannered and far less believable. 

However… you watch Depp. Your eyes are drawn to him. While it may not be great acting, it’s a hell of a performance.

That’s indicative of a larger problem with the film. It’s ultimately shallow. It’s very much “and then this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened”, and rarely slows down to find out what that means to anyone.

The best performance in the film by a country mile is Julianne Nicholson’s, and it’s squandered. She plays the wife of an FBI agent (Joel Edgerton) who grew up with Bulger, who sees the effects of the corruption of her husband. She plays it well and subtly, and was the only character in the movie that I ended up caring about. But she’s in about five scenes, and her story is played out in shorthand. It never feels like her story either – it’s there to enhance the men’s stories only.

This is what separates it from achieving the sort of connection that Goodfellas made. In that, the stories felt real and felt like they had real impact. We were made to care about the characters more, so as the degradation hits them, it matters to us.

In Black Mass, the film is so concerned about showing us what happened that it skips over taking the time to make us care about why it’s happening. That’s a scripting issue, and it may be one that’s occurred because it’s been hamstrung by having to keep close to what actually happened.

There’s an example of this in the opening, actually. The opening focuses on Kevin Weeks (Jesse Plemons, who you may remember as the creepy Todd from Breaking Bad) turning informant on Bulger. As a result, the first ten minutes are all about him, which make you think that the film is going to focus on him more throughout… but it’s not his story. He’s a background player in the film. But he’s a background player that took a large real life action, so he has to be there. In a film more removed from the recent past, he’d probably have been combined with another character (likely W Earl Brown’s portrayal of John Martorano), and the film probably would have been better for that.

All this said, the film’s actually pretty good. It’s brilliantly shot throughout – every fifth shot looks like it could have been the movie poster. And while I have issues with the plotting, almost every individual scene is fairly strong and giving some more-than-capable actors plenty to do.

The problem is that this could have been this generation’s Goodfellas, and clearly wants to be. But it falls short. It’s worth your time, absolutely, but I doubt it’ll stick in your mind years later.

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