Have you ever finished a story and said to yourself, "That was pretty good. But it could have been great if only they had done x, y, or z?"
That is the feeling I had when I left Black Mass.
This movie assembled one of the most impressive ensemble casts I have seen in a good long while. And all the time I was watching it, I kept thinking that the movie never really utilized them. It's like having a top of the line super computer and using only to check your twitter feed.
Black Mass is the true story of James "Whitey" Bulger played by one of our greatest living film actors Johnny Depp. Depp brings terror and charisma to this monstrous mobster. But the real central character is John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), an FBI man from Whitey's neighborhood. When the mandate comes down that the FBI needs to take out the Italian mob, Connolly proposes an alliance with Whitey's Winter Hill Gang to help take them out. And of course, this deal with the devil begins to spiral out of control.
What follows is a serviceable, but uninspired story. I do not have any inside information, but I get the feeling that the movie was supposed to be about Connolly, but once Depp signed on they centered it mostly on Whitey. This was a mistake. Don't get me wrong, Depp is fantastic. But like The Silence of the Lambs (and it should be noted how Hannibal Lector-like Depp looks in this film), a little can go a long way. From the very beginning you get the strong sense that there is something bent about Connolly. If the movie had started off with him much more of a straight arrow who got twisted by his own designs, that would much more compelling.
The story also suffers from the problem that most bio-pics have: putting in details that don't service a straightforward plot. Early in the movie there is a storyline about Whitey's sick child. This is used to explain Whitey being as evil as he is. The problem is that you didn't need that storyline because you already bought that Whitey was a psychopath. Ultimately this and other vignettes feel like unnecessary tangents.
As a Catholic, I found that this movie does what the best mob movies do: they show the ugliness of evil. I know that some people emulate the characters in The Godfather, but Coppola clearly meant to show how making evil choices destroys your soul. Many of the characters in the movie don't have much soul to begin with, but what little they had is exchanged for what ultimately feels like dust.
What does work incredibly well, as I said, are the performances. Depp should get another Oscar nomination. He truly looks ghoulish and he exudes menace. There is one particularly harrowing scene where is he "checking on the health" of Connolly's wife (Julianne Nicholson) that is so filled with threatening subtext that it is difficult to breathe while watching it. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Whitey's straight-laced brother, and he nails the apathetic evil of turning a blind eye. There are also fantastic performances by Dakota Johnson, Kevin Bacon, Peter Sarsgaard, Jesse Plemmons, David Harbour, and Juno Temple.
But these great actors or horribly integrated into the story. Johnson disappears a third of the way through the movie with no explanation. Sarsgaard seems to come out of nowhere to be a complication. Temple is in one quick shot in the first act and we are expected to remember her significance for a tense, emotional scene in the third. Plot points and characters are not Jenga pieces that should be placed wherever possible to keep the story straight. They must grow organically from the beginning so that they are an integrated whole. Instead, the characters mash ups make Black Mass feel like a Frankenstein's monster where director Scott Cooper tried to take the best parts from other movies and awkwardly sew them together.
I will also say this about the movie, it is fascinating. It never draws you in to truly care about the characters, but it does keep your interest by taking you behind the curtain of a world that is rarely scene. I mean, who knew there was such an underworld in the sport of Jai-alai?
Bottom line: if you want to see great performances and don't mind that they are presented in a mediocre film, then Black Mass is for you.
3 out of 5 stars.