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Review: Don’t Judge Johnny Depp And ‘Black Mass’ Too Harshly

Black-Mass-Poster Movie Spoon

Depp is almost too good and the movie too sophisticated for the general audience. This is an art film, not grabbing for cheap drama, but putting some complicated characters in front of the audience for their perusal.

The reviews for Black Mass, featuring Johnny Depp as the Irish gangster from Boston James “Whitey” Bulger are puzzling to say the least. A few complain about the point that “we’ve seen all this before,” calling the film a string of cliches, what with all the whispering, the plotting and the murders and such. Others call the film incorrect. Kevin Weeks, a former member of Bulger’s Winter has been called upon to testify in an interview with the Daily Beast. “He says Johnny Depp’s film is bogus,” the Daily Beast concludes.

Week’s, who has written three books since his release from prison, including: Hunted Down: The FBI’s Pursuit and Capture of Whitey Bulger. So, he should know. After all, “he served as one of Whitey’s devoted henchmen,” we are told. And he must have been a good employee. For one, he survived working with a man who’s murder spree was custom fit to eliminate those not loyal to him. For another, he worked for Whitey for 18 years. Now, that’s gotta look good on a resume.

Mihir Fadnavis of F.Salon says we’ve seen all this before: “The crazed protagonist aided by makeup. Check. The Boston accent. Yup. The Irish connection. Present. A few misogynist lines and scenes. Done. Loyal henchman. Of course.”

 

We’ve also read those pat check list paragraphs before. Yawn. But let’s take it under advisement. The next mobster from Boston who wears makeup should be spared Hollywood’s mastication.

One way to cut to the chase here is to review Black Mass on its own merits. Forget whether or not we’ve seen all this before – because maybe “we” does not include everyone in the audience. Forget the inaccuracies. There are bound to be some, after all.

Truth is not about accuracy. Maybe he killed 12 instead of 11 people. Facts are facts. But the truth is about the impression the audience takes away with them as they leave the theater.

I, for one, left Black Mass thinking, “I can’t believe I would like Whitey Bulger very much.” But FBI mole John Connolly made my blood boil. He was Bulger’s childhood friend who rigged the FBI pursuit of Bulger to make the murderer sound like a valuable informant to the rest of Boston’s underworld. This caused the FBI to give Bulger way too long a leash. This is the movie’s most critical score.

In fact, Black Mass is not Hollywood enough. It is told in a journalistic style in which the director, Scott Cooper, tries not to call attention to himself. Depp’s performance, similarly, is too good — too underplayed and too subtle. Depp’s Bulger is a go-to-work, clock in, clock out, workaday Irish mob gangster whose anger is explained by the death of his young son and his mother. We could have used a flashback to Bulger’s childhood instead to find more credible motivation. Bulger was always a shit. Yeah — we get that.

Black Mass is ruthless, but complex. It is not gory, glamorized or self-aggrandizing. The pivotal player is not Bulger, anyway; it’s John Connolly, played by Joel Edgerton.

My review in 100 words or less: Depp is almost too good and the movie too sophisticated for the general audience. This is an art film, not grabbing for cheap drama, but putting some complicated characters in front of the audience for their perusal. This film could use a little more umph – but it’s hard to say just where that should be. It lacks, I think, a defining flashback or two. But I still give a solid 3.75 stars to Black Mass, which is bombing, unfortunately, at the box office. But it’s going to be one hell of a seller when it comes out in DVD.

Anthony Hall


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