Telluride 2015 Review: ‘Black Mass’ Is a Black Mess

The framing device of Black Mass is a series of interviews with witnesses to the crimes of James “Whitey” Bulger and FBI agent John Connolly. It makes the actual scenes of the movie feel like the actors are re-enacting depositions. This is one thing Bulger did. And here’s another thing he did. It’s a narrative mess. 

Bulger (Johnny Depp) was a notorious gangster, and Connolly (Joel Edgerton) was an FBI agent using Bulger as an informant. Though the film only begins when this relationships starts in 1975, not Bulger’s earliest beginnings in crime, it’s clear that the filmmakers wanted to turn this into Goodfellas and tried to shoehorn this story into a similar kind of seductive, funny, shocking gangster tale. 

So Bulger talks about seemingly innocuous things and then reveals he’s actually threatening someone with violence. Several scenes seem to want to be like the “How am I funny?” scene in Goodfellas, but it’s blatant. The whole idea that a killer shows himself to be an endearing softy but then is still dangerous seems pretty trite at this point. It’s obvious that whenever Bulger is acting casual he’s really just strategizing his next kill. I’m sure the real Bulger used intimidation to keep his crew in line, but it feels derivative of other cinematic gangsters in Black Mass.

It’s difficult to adapt any history into a screenplay, even if it’s based on a book too, but the writers of Black Mass never make it flow. It’s just a series of episodes, so we see Bulger do various things and Depp gets to act violent. Oh, Bulger was talking to this guy but then he shot him. Then he was talking to this guy but it was also a ruse, because he was planning to kill him all along. Seriously, how many times can there be a “sudden” shooting at the end of a meeting? It’s not a surprise when the star of your gangster movie pulls out a gun, and it’s certainly not a surprise the third time. 

Again, it’s trying to be that Goodfellas moment of “Whoa, these guys I liked are actually dangerous killers! Maybe I should watch my back around them!” Only one scene of a shotgun attack has any sense of personality, and still not much. Otherwise it’s very repetitive with a single pistol shot coming “out of the blue.” If the point was that Bulger was deceptively comforting, that’s lost because it’s always obvious that he’s dangerous. 

Because the supporting cast is filled with A-list stars, everyone gets one big speech because they’re Benedict Cumberbatch and Kevin Bacon. I’m sure their characters had a significant role in bringing down Bulger, but it plays like, “We need to give Bacon a speech if we want him in the movie.” 

Word of a three-hour cut indicates that director Scott Cooper might have had trouble narrowing down the story. Perhaps we are missing some connective tissue, but more likely it was a series of more unwieldy episodes. It goes back to the testimony/re-enactment structure. If they’re sticking to stories that others were around to witness, that’s just not a complete portrait of Bulger and Connolly at all. Yes, use those witness accounts to confirm the major details, but to understand Bulger, we need an actual artist to fill in the gaps. Even if it’s just an interpretive guess at an enigmatic subject’s motivations, at least it would provide a meaningful theory. 

Image via Warner Bros.

Fred Topel is a veteran journalist since 1999 and has written for CraveOnline since 2006. See Fred on the ground at Sundance, SXSW, Telluride or in Los Angeles and follow him on Twitter @FredTopel, Instagram @Ftopel.