starring Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Rory Cochrane
screenplay by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth
directed by Scott Cooper
by Walter Chaw I liked Scott Cooper's Out of the Furnace well enough. It's miserabilist poverty porn, but it features an impressive cast doing ugly work, and I was fine with its stock pleasures as a deep genre exercise in the Next of Kin/hillbillysploitation mold. I like Black Mass considerably less. It's a cartoon with a cartoon performance by Joel Edgerton, cartoon makeup for Johnny Depp, and cartoon accents from everyone else, including a miscast Benedict Cumberbatch, tasked with sounding South Boston rather than South London c. 1882. There's a scene early on when the respectable senator played by Cumberbatch, Billy, is at home for the holidays with older brother and star of this show, Jimmy "Whitey" Bulger (Depp), that plays exactly like an outtake from Johnny Dangerously--card-cheatin', tough-talkin' Irish ma and all. It's funny. Unintentionally so, I'd wager, but in any case funny in a cruel way. Edgerton's big, showy, Townie turn as former boy from the old neighbourhood (I should say "NAY -buh--hud") turned FBI agent Johnny is also funny--for the wig, yes, but for the outrageous overacting, too. It's the first time since maybe What's Eating Gilbert Grape? that Johnny Depp has been out-hammed by someone, so at least there's that.
Bulger, see, is Boston's most notorious gangster. He ran a group of thugs called the "Winter Hill Gang" that terrorized the city for a while and, by the way, got involved with gambling rings revolving around jai alai in Florida. I'll wait a second for you to read that again. But it's true, so it's in the film--along with other funny things like how Bulger, played rather well by Depp (who's betrayed by the makeup, screenplay, and direction), has this "SNL" skit-like tendency to murder anyone in his immediate vicinity just after delivering a street-poetic monologue at them. After a while, you just sort of wait for the punchline. Again, Depp does fantastic work here, even while looking like a gila monster, or Louis Gossett, Jr. in Enemy Mine. It's an unselfish performance following an alarming series of selfish ones. Shame there's no one in the above-the-line cast to really to benefit from his largesse. I will say that the scene between Bulger and Hope (Julianne Nicholson), FBI agent Johnny's long-suffering wife, is extraordinary. Cornering her in a doorway, Bulger menaces Hope after she declines an invitation to join him and others at the dinner table. Cooper makes his best decisions here. He holds on Hope as she registers shock, shame, terror. Nicholson steals the film in these two minutes. I can't wait to see more from her.
For the rest, Cooper demonstrates that he's a knock-off David O. Russell. He's showing off a lot, taking approaches that GoodFellas took, portraying essentially that he's overmatched by this material and the legacy of its genre. Look at a scene in a nightclub where Bulger arranges a hit. The edits become jagged. The camera movements are smug. Then Cooper cuts to the parking lot, does a few smash cuts. I'd argue that he doesn't have the chops to be the star of the show and so shouldn't aspire to it. There's a good story in Black Mass and it's buried under tons of awards-bait grandstanding. An extended end-title sequence telling the future of these characters is interrupted by another little vignette of Bulger's 2011 arrest--an excessive epilogue to an excessive film that's at least as far past as its sell-by date as Bulger himself. Maybe that's the appeal and the essential failure of Black Mass: that it wants to be Prince of the City or Donnie Brasco or yeah, c'mon, The Godfather or Gomorrah--and it wants to so badly that the flop sweat is showing. Just like the line in Depp's terrible skullcap. The script is by turns too descriptive and too oblique, with entire characters disappearing suddenly and storylines dropped. There's great supporting work, especially from Peter Sarsgaard as a coked-up psychopath and Rory Cochrane in his moments with perpetual sexual-violence victim Juno Temple. The film's budget and prestige show, but it feels like a hyperactive kid wanting attention--even if it's the bad kind.