Asking for a modern day GOODFELLAS would be far too unfair a demand to place on any film, but the very least an audience should expect from BLACK MASS, the hotly anticipated new film about the infamous gangster Whitey Bulger, is an experience laced with energy, insight and pizzazz. Sadly, the film is sorely lacking in all these respects.
The screenplay by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth bears considerable blame for these deficiencies. Much like Whitey: The United States vs. James J. Bulger, last year’s lukewarm documentary on the same subject, there’s little offered in BLACK MASS that you couldn’t glean from a Wikipedia entry; that is to say, the narrative fails to infuse any human details or empathetic depths into the plot points which have already been widely reported upon. For instance, what drove Whitey’s ambitions – a thirst for sadism, a calling, a desire to rule, the intoxication of being feared and respected? We’re not given a single clue. This should be an important point in the narrative, because the second lead character (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) is Whitey’s brother Billy, a figure who attempted to take his life in another direction as a politician and lawyer. The film seems to want to paint a contrast between the two of them, but we’re given no sense of how their paths veered in opposite directions or how they feel about the occupations of the other. As a result, these contrasts remain only surface deep. The entire film is surface both in its lack of fleshed out characterizations or a lived-in environment (the Boston of the film should serve as another defining character of the piece, but it remains largely undistinctive). The film completely bypasses what Scorsese so masterfully demonstrated in his gangster oeuvre – that God is in the details. Outside of a few repetitive and unimaginatively staged murders, we don’t even witness any part of Whitey’s criminal operation; in fact, we’re surprised to learn 90 minutes into the picture when we hear second-hand that he serves up drugs to 12-year old kids in the neighborhood.
Scott Cooper’s solemn direction eradicates the film of all personality. This proves especially burdensome on the actors. The sledgehammer cast in BLACK MASS would be any director’s dream, but each of them are denied an opportunity to play more than a single monotonous note. This is a particularly pitiful plight for Johnny Depp, an actor who’s usually renowned or mocked for infusing his roles with too much personality. You can tell he’s going for something unique in his striking physical representation of Whitey Bulger, but his imagination seems stilted when it comes to filling the interior of the character. This is not entirely his fault – as the screenplay allows him practically no foundation and minimal motivation – but his failure to fully embrace more playful or savage colors feels conspicuous nonetheless. Perhaps the greatest disservice to Depp occurs in the centerpiece scene (the one that marks the opening of the film’s trailer) where Whitey tauntingly toys with an FBI agent at the dinner table. This scene feels like a very pale imitation of Joe Pesci’s most cherished moment in GOODFELLAS (“How am I funny? Funny how?”), and you feel embarrassed that Depp’s been put in a position to mimic such a classic sequence. Luckily, Depp achieves just the right level of slithery menace in the very next scene (the best moment in the film) as he threateningly caresses Julianne Nicholson.
BLACK MASS is a polished and handsome production brought off in a respectful, classical style. But this kind of material demands at least a whiff of disrespectability. The film’s pace is lumbering at best, and outside of Peter Sarsgaard’s manic supporting performance, it lacks the adrenalized propulsions that drive the best films in the gangster genre. People exiting the theater could be heard commenting on how they felt it was a great film; I suspect that they recognized the surface of Oscar striving quality and mistook it as nourishment. But don’t they realize that movies exist to entertain, enlighten and remind us what it means to be human (especially if those humans are figures we wouldn’t normally be prone to identifying with)? BLACK MASS offers none of these qualities. It merely presents a series of events in chronological order, but can’t seem bothered to understand or dramatize the emotional dimensions behind those events. There’s no there there. C-