Here's the unavoidable truth about Black Mass: if it weren't stuffed to the brim with extremely talented actors, it wouldn't be a very good movie. This is a classic example of inspired performances elevating an otherwise lackluster film to something passably good. Well, perhaps something better than that- Black Mass does flirt with greatness, especially in its first third. It's a slow and occasionally boring gangster film- seemingly based on a bullet point list of James "Whitey" Bulger's life- that's strengthened by an outstanding performance from Johnny Depp.
Black Mass is on many people's radars for two primary reasons: one, there's finally a gangster film about Whitey Bulger (it seems like half of cinema's most famous gangsters are based on him); two, it's been hailed as Johnny Depp's acting comeback after years of silly roles in mediocre movies. Black Mass delivers on both these fronts, largely due to a cast that brings the true story to life (back to life?) with ceaselessly impressive skill. The amount of big names this movie boasts is ridiculous- Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Kevin Bacon and Jesse Plemons receive top billing, but that doesn't even begin to cover the amount of famous faces- and they all bring their A-game to the screen.
All but Dakota Johnson of 50 Shades of Grey fame, actually: she displays a fair amount of emotional depth, but her emotional range is quite limited (i.e. she acts well, but only when her character is sweet or slightly worried.) It could be argued that she wasn't given much to work with, but her biggest moments across from Depp come across as strained despite being effectively written.
Speaking of Depp, let me write about Johnny Depp.
All I want to do is write about Johnny Depp.
If there's anything that Depp's colorful career has taught us, it's that his best roles are the ones that he relishes. And that he likes wearing weird hats. Whether he's an outcast with scissors for hands (and weird hair) or a swashbuckling pirate (with a weird hat), Depp's most iconic roles are the ones that the audience can tangibly sense his love for. He's become famous for relishing strangeness, but here he resurrects his serious acting career by relishing restraint.
It's easy to describe Whitey Bulger as a veritable monster, but Depp savors every moment portraying him as a tortured human who has fully embraced remorseless murder. Depp relishes humanizing the man in every context from family board games to senseless violence, and he knows that makes us uncomfortable, and he loves it. He achieves this through a mastery of restraint: Bulger's terrifyingly sinister demeanor is never overdone to the point of unfeasibility; Depp never overemphasizes his character's loyalty to the point of empathy. Simply put, Johnny Depp is nearly perfect as the infamous gangster. His performance alone is almost worth the price of admission.
Almost, because Scott Cooper's direction consistently lets the movie down. His films are characteristically slow (his previous movie Out of the Furnace was a sluggish buildup to a huge payoff), but are paced well enough to justify such a choice. Black Mass is slow- often to the point of being boring- but without a justification for it. Cooper seems more interested in depicting a bullet-point list of events in Bulger's life than using the criminal's career to tell a story with rising tension or conclusions.
This works in the movie's favor during the expositional stages of its first third- it allows the unfolding events to draw viewers in by means of introducing the characters- but Black Mass feels like it never leaves this stage. It keeps throwing out scenes that do not naturally flow, introducing incidents that historically cover Bulger's life but never pace the movie in an entertaining or involving way. After 90 minutes of this, it quietly fizzles out with one last occurrence that can't really be described as an ending.
Good thing the cast is around to spice the routine up!
The score and the setting break through the tedious proceedings as well. Mad Max composer Junkie XL's music seeps throughout the film with a haunting subtlety- a nice complement to Johnny Depp's performance. The 1970s South Boston setting is apparently dead on: admittedly, I didn't do much growing up in 70s Southie, so I'm taking others' word for this. I can say from direct experience that Black Mass's 70s Southie burns with the lively atmosphere and accurate accents of the best crime-riddled cities in film.
Black Mass is a movie of two halves. The narrative will put you to sleep, but the cast will have you asking a friend to shake you awake every time Johnny Depp or Joel Edgerton comes on screen. These halves add up to a good gangster movie- but certainly not one that will stand the test of time like the best of the genre.