Massachusetts Daily Collegian

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A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

An all-star cast meets a mediocre script in ‘Black Mass’

(Official Black Mass Movie Facebook Page)

The highly anticipated “Black Mass,” starring Oscar-nominated actor Johnny Depp, is alas a very average crime movie. Despite an abundance of A-list actors rounding out the cast, including Benedict Cumberbatch and Joel Edgerton, “Black Mass” crumbles due to poor writing.

The movie opens with a fast, violent scene that suggests a high-speed, gangster movie tempo, but the rest of the film does not maintain this pace. The film slows and thickens, but not in a good, complex fashion. Rather it becomes gelatinous, drifting from scene to scene with no obvious impetus provided by the plot. After two-plus hours the film left me wanting more. I wanted to see more of South Boston, hear more from its citizens, and learn why such a vicious crime lord was somewhat respected and even “loved” by the community he terrorized.

“Black Mass” sets out to depict the evolution of small-time South Boston neighborhood criminal Whitey Bulger (Johnny Depp) into a big-time, murderous, kingpin on the FBI’s most wanted list. Whitey is well known in the South Boston community. The Italians in the North End threaten Bulger’s control of organized crime in Boston, so Whitey strikes up a deal with former Southie kid and current FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton). He agrees to be an informant to help take down the Italian mob in the north end.

While the Italians distract the FBI, Whitey’s criminal activities are allowed to flourish.

There are moments of potential in the film. Depp delivers a menacing  performance. One second he’s joking around, the next he’s executing a man with no hesitation. Edgerton does an excellent job playing the slimy FBI agent who works under the Bureau’s nose to keep Whitey out of prison.

But despite two solid individual performances, the screenplay written by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth never makes the relationship between Whitey and Connolly strong enough. Connolly is willing to put his neck on the line for Whitey even when fellow FBI officials constantly question the legitimacy of his informant deal, but his only defense is that Whitey was good to him as a kid.

The cinematography is  mostly dark and shadowy. Murky lighting fails to reflect the setting of South Boston. There are a lot of terrifying, close-up shots of Depp, but they aren’t balanced with wide-angle, establishing shots of the environment . The lighting and camerawork make the film disorienting at times.

There is little sense of where each scene takes place in time or space. The score is also dark, comprised of dramatic bass heartbeats. Both the imagery and soundtrack fit together, but fail to allow “Black Mass” to stand out or be unique. It just felt like another cookie-cut crime-thriller movie.

Perhaps the sound and production crew could have incorporated a more Irish soundtrack to fit the context of the movie, though I guess the Dropkick Murphys were off the market, considering their role in the soundtrack of Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed.”

A major theme in “Black Mass” is loyalty. One of the reasons Whitey was on the run for so long is because people from the neighborhood were so loyal to him that they were unwilling to talk to law enforcement. In a New York Times interview, director Scott Cooper said that he wanted to display Whitey Bulger’s “humanity” as much as his inhumanity.

Cooper did do a decent job of showing the more humane aspects to Whitey’s character, which is apparent in scenes involving Whitey’s son, an elderly neighborhood woman named Mrs. Cody, and sequences in which Whitey plays cards with his mom. But I still didn’t find these scenes compelling enough to believe people in South Boston liked Whitey Bulger enough to protect him from the FBI.

A lot of the focus is put on Whitey. He is the central character of the movie, but a lot of his character traits, especially the gentler ones, seem forced because he is the focus of so much of the film. There is little input provided by the characters that are not involved in Whitey’s gang or the FBI.

It would have beneficial if the film chose to focus less on Whitey and more on the effect he had on the community of South Boston as a whole. That way Whitey’s character traits would emerge more organically and they would be more believable. I might then be convinced that people in Southie “loved” Whitey Bulger even after watching brutal murder scenes where his piercing blue eyes show no signs of remorse.

It’s apparent that the cast and crew put in a lot of hard work, but the dull script and disorienting cinematography diminish much of the film’s potential. Despite all of the hype, “Black Mass” fails to meet expectations.

Matthew Armstrong can be reached at [email protected].

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  • D

    DaveJul 27, 2016 at 4:44 am

    Terrible screenplay! Worst dialogue ever! Slow, boring, no tension and release. Total piece of garbage!

  • P

    poppy artSep 30, 2015 at 3:12 pm

    great job.well done