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Creative vision is amongst the departed in this highly disappointing high body count mob movie that never amounts to anything at all. One of the tricks of Martin Scorsese, reigning supreme of gangster movies, is how his movies always seem to have way more action than they actually do. Most of Goodfellas, the graphic, sadistically violent, parents-censored Goodfellas, is actually mainly just people talking. In rooms. In restaurants. In cars. The punchy dialogue, vibrant characters, and smart direction sizzle with such intensity they almost seem to explode, stealing your breath and catching your gaze. Likewise, nobody will challenge how well Quentin Tarantino can write a bomb-under-the-table scene only entirely through dialogue. But they are masters of their craft. Director Scott Cooper is neither Martin Scorsese or Quentin Tarantino and spends no time imitating either, which could sound like a compliment that he has a singular identity if it weren’t that Black Mass didn’t have any identity at all. This movie has less personality than the ordinary chair I’m writing this review on.
Black Mass uses the real life source behind Scorsese’s above-punned film The Depa(h)rted, the fascinating real life story of a Boston mobster kingpin and his controversial relationship with the FBI. In essence—and I assure you this isn’t a spoiler even if it sounds like one— he became an FBI “informant,” or what he smugly labeled an “alliance.” James “Whitey” Bulger, played with stunt casting by Johnny Depp, promised to give the FBI the Italian Mafia in exchange for carte blanche on his own crew. Brokering the deal is FBI agent and childhood friend John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), who over-ambitiously uses Bulger to rise through the ranks of power at the FBI himself. With them is Bulger’s brother, Senator William Bulger, who Benedict Cumberbatch plays with one of the worst Boston accents in cinema history.
In what could be called a bold creative move, many scenes of Black Mass don’t use the crazily melodramatic score by Junkie XL in attempt to use silence as a source of much needed tension (the movie doesn’t have any). Rather than building a sense of danger or suspense in these scenes of silence, what came to light was a sad confirmation of what I was already feeling: in the empty sound of the theater, I heard yawns, sighs, and people restlessly adjusting in their seats. The audience was bored. I was too. The plot, which mostly follows a scattershot unfolding of random scenes and events that, to the best I can piece it together (insofar as much as movies such as Black Mass can motivate deep analysis), have absolutely nothing to do with each other beyond sharing the same actors playing the same characters. On the absolute broadest level, this follows crime movie basics of the rise-and-fall story, only the twist is we never really see the rise or the fall.
Bulger goes from a small time hood to head of all of Boston’s crime, but we’re never shown how or why. The ins and outs of Bulger’s supposedly sophisticated crime system remain as much a mystery to me now as they did going into the theater; Black Mass stays on the surface-most level of the story. Things are confined to dimly-lit bars or FBI office rooms, spitting at us through wooden expository dialogue, i.e., we’re repeatedly told through dialogue what characters think, feel, or what they are doing instead of actually showing us. By having everybody tell us what they have done or will do instead of what they actually are doing, present tense, the movie’s momentum falls into a black hole of empty nothingness. “Show don’t tell” is an overused filmmaking platitude, but the lesson never suited finer ears than those of Scott Cooper and his screenwriters.
Similarly, Bulger’s characterization half humanizes and half paints him as a psychopath, but neither are mined enough for convincing rewards. Depp’s motivated but uneven, playing warmth an ounce too cold or coldness a smidgen too warm, effectively selling the persona and the presence but not the man, a huge problem in a movie where he’s the nucleus. Connolly is the real protagonist as the FBI informant trying to use Bulger, and—apologies for playing armchair screenwriter—a tighter story around him with Depp on the periphery would likely be been more compelling.
But in an exciting twist, what the trailers haven’t told you is that Black Mass is actually a genre-mashing combo of A Song of Ice and Fire, Underworld, and big time gangster movies—the only acceptable explanation for Depp’s hilarious prosthetics. They include crystalline blue eyes and the skin of a powdered doughnut. Depp doesn’t just play a crime lord, but a crime lord that’s a white walker and/or vampire and ready to attack the Wall and/or drink all your blood. Buckle in your seat belts, kids, a popular theory on Reddit is that he’ll be in Season 6 of Game of Thrones.
Sadly the creative misfires never stop coming. Shockingly, only a few scenes in the unending two hours actually work, and when they do, it’s always cheap tension around whether or not Bulger will fuck shit up. Never mind whether or not Cooper develops a memorable set piece, since even things that sound cool on paper are directed as uninterestingly as possible.
In what should’ve been a visceral sequence, a motorcycle-riding hitman pulls up next to a stopped car—with its window down. Quickly drawing his gun, the hitman fires into the car, murdering the man inside. Perplexingly, it’s angled so the motorcycle and its driver obscure a good view inside the car. We can’t really see inside; therefore, any effect the scene was designed to have is missing. In another lackluster crime movie with the same scene setup a la motorcycle man with a gun—after all it’s a genre favorite—is this year’s The Connection, which had the good sense to position the camera facing both vehicles. Suddenly with that simple change, the visual clarity amplifies the gunshot’s impact. Every scene of Black Mass follows the same formula, keeping the camera at a distracting angle, obscuring with blue-infused shots that keep things needlessly wide and in the way. The whole movie is this way. Black Mass is, in other words “How to Not Make A Mob Movie For Dummies” that’s now for sale at your local theater.
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