Film review – Black Mass

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BLACK MASS
Crime drama biopic based on the true story of Jimmy “Whitey” Bulger, the infamous Boston gangster who became an FBI informant as the bureau attempted to bring down the mafia. Starring Johnny Depp, Kevin Bacon, Joel Edgerton and Benedict Cumberbatch.

Johnny Depp has gone on record stating that Black Mass is his favourite film so far .. not that he watches any of them, apparently.
It’s a heavyweight movie focusing on a truly nasty human being, but the keyword for the star was “human”, and Depp approached the character objectively trying to get to the heart of the man. The rancid, cold, barely beating heart of a multiple murder and serial manipulator of those around him. As the story progresses, it gets to the point where seemingly anyone disagreeing with Bulger about anything will get “whacked” …

But, we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
From the onset, Depp seems to be channeling his inner Jack Nicholson and not just from the obvious physical resemblance between the veteran actor and the work of the make-up department in this picture. It’s the seething menace, the barely controlled rage that oozes from every pore as he brings Bulger to life. The voice is uncannily similar too, that familiar drawl given a faint hint of an Irish-American brogue – but he still sounds like the medicated Nicholson in Cuckoo’s Nest most of the time.

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Starting out as a small-time crook, Bulger’s criminal career took off when he got into bed with the FBI. I won’t go into too much detail, but it involves his brother and their closest friend growing up on the south side of Boston, now himself a federal agent.
The trio are progressing nicely along their respective paths but eventually grief and greed play their part in making all their lives more difficult.
Having already served time, Bulger was always a loose cannon, but as his paranoia takes root the fuse seems to be almost constantly lit.

His defenders may argue he wasn’t dealt the best of hands given his background but his brother is living proof we make our own luck in this world and some of our decisions have profound consequences.
Not knowing too much of the background to this sorry tale, I was surprised by some of the things that happened in his life – again, no spoilers, apart from one which was almost casually tossed aside : the fact that the US prison system was involved with drug-testing in the sixties and seventies. Bulger himself apparently took 40 or 50 acid trips while being monitored by the authorities in exchange for time off his sentence.
I think they need to change their definition of “good behaviour”.
Call me naive, but I find this staggering in the extreme, especially given the subsequent brain damage that may have been inflicted on already dangerous souls soon to be released back into society (a lot sooner than they would’ve expected going inside in the first place, too.)

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But I digress.
If Black Mass is one thing, it’s thought-provoking.
It reminds you of the dark days of the IRA and the mafia and when terror came from within our own borders.

However, while it certainly has its merits – a stellar cast, strong script, solid cinematography – it also has its drawbacks and I’m afraid they outweigh the good stuff.

Firstly, the film is too long and too slow. It could’ve been half an hour shorter and had better pacing. The first hour is painful and really drags as the legend of Bulger’s character is built up, piece by piece, layer by layer, and we see him “grow” from a low-life scumbag to a high-life scumbag. We get it already – just get on with it.
Secondly, it teeters dangerously on the edge of actually making you care for this most evil of men. In the same way Legend made the audience feel for the more “normal” Reggie Kray over his cartoonishly maniacal twin, Ronnie, Black Mass almost makes you sorry for Bulger. Or at least it feels like it’s trying to …
I don’t know. Maybe it’s just because Johnny Depp is playing the part, because the third – and by far the biggest – flaw in the movie is the absolutely dreadful prosthetics and make-up he’s wearing throughout. At no point in viewing Black Mass could I ever suspend my disbelief that this was Depp in a skull cap and terrible contacts.
Oh, those lenses. Those ridiculously thick lenses.
I know part of the film was set in 1975, but why use period vision care ?!
He looked ludicrous.
It ruins the film.
I just couldn’t see past it.
Not even if I was wearing the damn things …

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I’ve waited this far into the review to make this astonishing reveal but that’s because so much effort was put into this picture that I wanted it to be the real deal, but it isn’t.

Given this is the first time Depp’s played a real life human being in decades, it seems such a terrible waste of his talent. Are we only going to see him in childrens’ movies and comedies from now on ? I hope not, but I would like him to play relatively straight, mainstream dramatic parts every once in a while .. not this vampish lampoonery.

Black Mass is a flawed movie of a flawed man.
There is some circularity in describing it that way, but it brings me no pleasure to do so.
A massive disappointment, I’m afraid …

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