Today’s topic: what went wrong with this year’s Johnny Depp gangster drama, Black Mass. I’ve been thinking about tackling the subject of a wasted movie’s potential for a long time, sniffing around the negativity, trying to think of a nice way of putting all my thoughts into one single post. I waited for the right movie, a movie so fresh that people are still paying for the theater tickets. I got it. No other film has left me this disappointed this year. I’m talking about the highly anticipated, rumored as Johnny Depp’s comeback, the still-hot Scott Cooper vehicle, Black Mass.
It’s a terrible feeling when you wait, and you wait some more, thinking to yourself that what you’re about to see is something special, and then after all the waiting, you are punched in the nose for your high hopes. Thousands, even millions saw the first trailer for this movie and their jaws dropped at the sight of the ice cold, make-up covered, brutally tough Johnny Depp as real life Boston crime lord, Jimmy ‘Whitey’ Bulger. Having read a lot about this intriguing ex- FBI most wanted list gangster, who in 2011 was finally caught in a parking lot in Santa Monica, California, after 16 years at large, made me thirsty for a movie adaptation. And it happened. But something went wrong. Something prevented this movie from being good. Not even great, but at least good. Not in this case. For wasting a highly interesting topic just look up this movie and you’ll see and know why. Scott Cooper has always had the wrong eye in directing his movies. In Crazy Heart (the performance that got Jeff Bridges the highly deserved Oscar) he sat back and let the music flow through the movie’s veins, losing control of what he was creating and making it a tiring almost two-hour watch. In the 2013 mediocre Out of the Furnace Cooper wasted an A-list cast to create, with his blessing, a lousy dark version of the American rural steelworker towns. And here again, Cooper’s direction looking almost intimidated by gangster epics like the darker Godfather series and the lighter-rocking Goodfellas, fails at delivering what could have been the tastiest dish of all year.
Violence. We love it. On screen it looks great. The bloodier, the merrier. The more violent character deaths, the more excited the viewer gets. Well, if there is something like repetitive, exhaustive, meaningless violence this film has it. Whatever the problem is (and there is a few) Whitey kills. Yes, the feared gangster was a feared murderer but he didn’t spend every single day shooting up possible ‘snitches’, strangling prostitutes, executing friends who got too drunk for his tastes (why even?) and beating strangers to a pulp leaving them in the middle of nowhere. No matter what happens, Bulger stands his ground by commiting violent crimes. And I have no doubt that it was really the case as he got charged with (at least) 19 murder cases, but there sure must have been more to him than that. Cooper and the writers seem to be fascinated by the cruel nature of Bulger, this way ignoring what could have been a different side to him. Yes, he was a loving father who lost his little son when the boy was six years old, but do we witness enough of that fatherly love? What we get is a scene where Bulger explains to the boy basically how to get away with a crime, and then a few scenes during which the mobster sits at the hospital and yells “fuck, fuck, fuck” at the news of his son’s death, insults his wife, threatens her and kicks a chair down. Is that all? Is that everything they have on him?
It feels poor. And it’s a shame because James ‘Whitey’ Bulger has been the second most wanted person on the face of the earth right after Osama Bin Laden for almost twenty years. The world is full of books, scripts, recordings, photographs that provide us a detailed description of this man’s character and the way he saw and walked the earth. And yet, in Black Mass it feels as if we’re watching a Wikipedia page, with the highlighted murders he committed and the way he stared at certain people. That’s why there is basically no plot: the writers feel intimidated by this towering figure of a born criminal and to spice things up, begin to concentrate more on Bulger’s FBI contact (since he was a federal informant, yes), John Connolly. Connolly is the lost sense of humanity and emotion that is squashed into the narrative to somehow try and carry the movie. As good as Joel Edgerton is, you can’t sell a convincing Boston accent when you’re Australian (and neither can you when you’re British, like Benedict Cumberbatch who plays Whitey’s brother). After some time, we realize we’re focusing more on Connolly than on the so-called protagonist. That’s because Johnny Deep comes on screen only to make a slight grin, look at the camera with his fake blue eyes and get dirty. It’s difficult and painful not to make a review out of this, because we got all the right ingredients.
Let’s compare styles: Scorsese in Goodfellas introduces mobster Henry Hill by having some fun at it, by pushing in with the camera and adding some fast paced editing and Tony Bennett’s Rags to Riches, this way already telling us the kind of person Henry is: unpredictable, childish, fun, dangerous and a dreamer. What does Cooper do? He takes it slow, almost as if he was shooting a documentary. He presents us with a brooding cinematography that captures a dimly lit bar where Bulger sits and listens. Nothing wrong with a conversation but when for over forty seconds we get nothing more than “Hey, Sammy. Fuck you.” – “No, fuck you.” – “Ah, shut the fuck up.” – “What the fuck?” – “Yeah, fuck you.” It’s fine we get it, we’re in Boston’s underworld but don’t overwork it. Bulger is the one (as always) that keeps quiet and watches a man eat peanuts. He’s evidently disgusted and makes a (again, vulgar) remark to the man eating peanuts that he shouldn’t eat peanuts with his fat hands because if he eats those peanuts with his “fat fucking hands” he’s going to put all his germs into the bowl of fucking peanuts. What do we learn from this? Better yet, who are we even watching? A man who likes to pick on the details? No, later on there is no underlining of that. No highlight. No flashback. Nothing. We’re watching what is supposed to be understood as: a monster.
Bulger does sit-ups, dresses in black, likes steaks and… what? That’s it you ask? Yes, that’s it. It’s all we get from the movie. Remember how in Goodfellas I talked about how great and yet twisted was the fact that the viewer grows fond of the gang, the family to which Henry Hill belongs to? In Black Mass we’re introduced to characters, middle men, dirty-hand workers who make no difference, they have no spirit, no personality. One minute they appear, the second they vanish. We wait for something tasty to bite on and well, we’re left feeling hungry and we stay that way until the very last credit rolls.
What The Departed managed to achieve in telling the story of South Boston’s mob by being a simple loose adaptation of a Hong Kong movie set in the US, is far superior than what we get from a movie that was supposed to tell us the story of the most notorious gangster in US history. And even Depp, as terrifying as he is, there is nothing natural about his performance, an iceberg of a character that is too primitive to watch. Wasted material. It’s a disappointing topic in the world of cinema, and a painful experience for every film buff around the globe.
Not even the Titanic could crash this iceberg.
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