September 16, 2015

SHOWBUZZDAILY Toronto Film Festival Review: “Black Mass”


Scott Cooper’s BLACK MASS is a beautifully put together and wonderfully acted true-life drama about Boston gangsters and the law, but it has a void at its center that holds it back from greatness.  That center isn’t occupied by JoOut ofhnny Depp or his character James “Whitey” Bulger (one used that nickname with him at one’s peril).  As had been reported from prior film festivals, Depp is frighteningly fierce as Bulger, giving his first performance in years that isn’t stained by Captain Jack Sparrow, Hunter Thompson or a general air of malaise.  Depp and Bulger may dominate the experience of watching Black Mass, but his place in the narrative is clear from the start.

The film’s pivotal figure is John Connolly (played by Joel Edgerton), the FBI agent who for two decades covered up Bulger’s crimes under the guise of his importance as a confidential informant.  We can accept that initially, Connolly thought he was improving things by using childhood friend and hometown boy Bulger to dispatch the Italian Mafia from Boston, and we can understand intellectually that after that, he was in too deep with Bulger to get out.  But as written in Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth’s script, and as played, Connolly is such a dullard that on some level, he doesn’t even seem to understand what’s going on as Bulger commits flagrant and brutal crimes in plain sight, and eventually one loses all patience with him.

This fundamental flaw is a shame, because in many ways Black Mass is a gangster epic in the grand tradition.  Depp’s Bulger is a psychopath to be reckoned with, never more dangerous than when he’s seemingly calm.  For all the on-screen murders he commits, his most horrifying scene doesn’t even involve bloodshed–it’s his almost flirtatious abuse of Connolly’s wife (Julianne Nicholson, whose humiliation is even more demeaning because she’s been one of the strongest-willed characters we’ve seen).  There’s also a paddy wagon’s worth of roles for great character actors:  Peter Sarsgaard, Jesse Plemons and Rory Cochrane as associates of Bulger’s, Benedict Cumberbatch as his State Senator brother who looks the other way, Dakota Johnson as Bulger’s wife, and Kevin Bacon, Corey Stoll, Adam Scott and David Harbour as lawmen.

Black Mass doesn’t go very deep–Bulger mourns the tragic early death of his child and then the loss of his mother, and that’s about all we know about him on a personal level–but it has plenty of tense and darkly funny sequences.  Cooper, working on a much larger scale than his previous Crazy Heart and Out of the Furnace, creates a pungent sense of Boston’s underside with cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi (who also shot Spotlight) and production designer Stefania Cella, and the music, both the score by Tom Holkenberg and the source cues, is choice.  The actors form a Lumet-level ensemble.

The script, though, has its weaknesses, not only in the inadequate ability to imagine Connolly, but in its sketchy picture of Boston and FBI politics, and its repetition unto predictability of scenes where Bulger is seemingly agreeable just before he’s about to kill someone himself or have them killed.  The film has a lived-in atmosphere, but not the substance to go with it.

We’re at the time of year when adult audiences are ready for an R-rated thriller, and although Black Mass is inferior to Sicario (which opens the same day), it has the kind of star power and conventional setting that’s likely to attract the bulk of that crowd.  It’s a fine example of its genre overall, just not the film it could have been.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."