Movie Review: Black Mass (2015)

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Director Scott Cooper is clearly a devout student of cinema, most notably to the cynical and foreboding decade known as the 70s, where political unrest, post-war uncertainty, and an overall discouraged mentality plagued these United States. Since his first feature Crazy Heart paved the way for Jeff Bridges’ unwarranted Academy Award win, Cooper, the unremarkable actor-turned-writer/director, has attempted to tap into filmmaking as social criticism. This was even more apparent in his flat and morose second feature Out of the Furnace. His emulation of Michael Cimino, Bruce Beresford, and Sidney Lumet is unmistakable, though what remains consistent throughout his films is Cooper’s lost ambition to create depth in his soulless, technical follow-through. His misuse of ability results in hollow films, attempting to investigate high brow concepts–Crazy Heart explores the depths of creative obscurity and Out of the Furnace tackles the uncertain turmoil of the modern American dream–inevitably failing in their shallow explorations. As an unoriginal filmmaker, masquerading as a unique storyteller, Cooper tends to regurgitate his influences.

That’s the unfortunate reality for his third feature Black Mass–a gangster drama mimicking the stylish form of Martin Scorsese and adopting Sidney Lumet’s scathing cynicism; yet, it struggles to find its own unique film identity. It’s not that Cooper’s initiative isn’t admirable–it truly is. But, when the films never reach the necessary character development, social irony, and moral paradoxes he desperately wishes to unfold in each beautifully constructed frame, his viewers are inevitably disappointed. Cooper’s promise of talent entrenched in his delightfully elegant presentation, and his clear understanding of acting prowess never quite match up with film expectations.

With Black Mass, Cooper attempts to recreate the sensationalist realism of Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, a film romanticized by emerging filmmakers and far richer in material, focus, and character than what is explored in Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth’s script. Certainly, there are large themes being investigated–enterprise in both career and power–but they skim the surface of what could have been a deep contemplation on the seduction of achievement and control at any cost, or even the banality of evil that was James “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp). Instead, the script casually showcases the FBI, under the supervision of Agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), in collusion with Bulger’s Winter Hill Gang to eliminate their common enemy: the Italian mob. A fascinating topic, especially in regard to overt political mismanagement and corruption. Unfortunately, the script seems overly mesmerized by the subject matter to allow engaging reflection and analysis of the complexities of the people, the moral debasement involved, or the dangers of loyalty.

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To Cooper’s credit, it’s probably better to introduce weighty material that doesn’t go deep enough than to avoid the investigation altogether, and he does it with a technical grace that is all too neglected by most young filmmakers (unless you count the great J.C. Chandor–the true reincarnation of Sidney Lumet). Working again with cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi (Out of the Furnace), Cooper ignites the brooding atmosphere on-screen with an urban, rain-slicked war zone, as well as dimly lit 70s and 80s interiors. The dismal bars of Boston and the claustrophobically intimate encounters behind closed doors are almost horror-like in genre, made more obvious with Depp’s Nosferatu-like prostetic makeup, turning him into the haunting and cold “Whitey” Bulger. That horror slant to the gangster genre is aided by the ominous score of composer Tom Holkenborg a.k.a. Junkie XL, who has had a hell of a year with score contributions to Mad Max: Fury Road, Run All Night, and the upcoming remake of Point Break. However, what’s bothersome about this film’s execution is that all of the elegant brutality and jazzy montages of violence, money, and corruption are all too familiar. Black Mass is teaming with style and comes very close to matching the guilty pleasures of Scorsese’s best gangster moments. But the film remains in a relentlessly grim state with flat, dramatic trajectory and lacks in actual character detail.

But no one will be talking about these conceptual faults or practically stolen styles within Black Mass. The focus will be on the return to prominent acting for Johnny Depp, who has been lost in a profitable world of uninspring, exhausting, and perpetually stupid filmmaking, including such as films as The Tourist, Mortdecai, Transcendence, and The Lone Ranger (one that was close to career-killing). When compared to those fiascos, Black Mass does see Depp at his most committed and convincing in a very long while. His ghastly interpretation of Bulger is one of unsettling charisma and unhinged brutality, where even the slightest touch of his hand is far more menacing than a gun pointed at the head. And he’s merely the centerpiece of the entire acting arsenal, including the talents of Benedict Cumberbatch, Joel Edgerton, Dakota Johnson, and the great Julianne Nicholson (her cringe-worthy scene with Depp is one of the best). Despite Depp’s immersion physically and emotionally (or lack thereof) into the role, the Bulger that he produces still seems to be incredibly elusive. The duplication nature of a script focused on retelling tales and the unwillingness to go deeper into a gangland psyche could be the reason for Depp’s miss on the mark. Then again, even the documentary Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger doesn’t approach a greater understanding of the legendary “Whitey” Bulger. Depp aims to crack the shell of the impenetrable gangster, but can’t permeate the core of such an unyielding character.

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Unfortunately, Black Mass fails to unfold the layers of a criminal mastermind by getting lost in the sensationalist evil that was linked with a famed gangster, racketeer, and murderer. James “Whitey” Bulger is not Satan incarnate, no matter how tempting it is to portray him as such. Bulger was a man–a horrible reminder of how far human nature can descend without being checked. All of the faults in Scott Cooper’s best mimicry of a Scorsese gangster picture, including the lack of character depth and shallow reflection on corruption and ambition, all reside in the preoccupation with the mythos of “Whitey” Bulger, instead of delving deeper into the man’s complexities. Take away the menacing (and unavoidably one-note) performance of Depp and you’re left with a film that lacks solid exposition in its subplots. Black Mass quickly becomes disingenuous in its retelling of actual events, as it never considers the important details of how Bulger was able to run such an impressive gangland empire. Scott Cooper’s analysis of an evil man is a hollow endeavor that fundamentally has nothing going on under its carefully constructed prosthetic surface.

Grade: C+

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