The reviews for Black Mass, featuring Johnny Depp as James “Whitey” Bulger, the Irish mobster from Boston, 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 factually incorrect. Kevin Weeks, a former member of Bulger’s Winter Hill Gang, discussed his concerns with the Daily Beast. “He says Johnny Depp’s film is bogus,” the Daily Beast relates.
Weeks 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 whose 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 psychopath from Boston who wears makeup should be spared Hollywood’s mastication. Got it.
So, let’s try something else. Let’s 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 always about accuracy. The truth within the confines of this film — it is a feature film, not testimony in a courtroom — is about the impression your audience takes away with them as they leave the theater.
I left Black Mass thinking, “I can’t believe I liked Whitey Bulger so much.” I also thought how much FBI mole John Connolly made my blood boil. He was Bulger’s childhood friend who rigged the FBI’s pursuit of Bulger to make the murderer sound like a valuable informant. This caused the FBI to give Bulger way too long a leash. This is the critical score the movie makes.
My complaint about Black Mass is that it is not Hollywood enough. It sort of dawdles along. Depp plays Bulger as a work-a-day hood, a mob boss who doesn’t mind getting his hands dirty and whose anger is explained by the death of his young son and his mother. But we could have used something more credible than that, as he was on the war path well before his son or his mother died.
Black Mass is ruthless, but it is not gory, glamorized or self-aggrandizing. The pivotal player is not Bulger, anyway; it’s John Connolly, played by Joel Edgerton.
Connolly was the character in conflict, wrestling with his demons. It is interesting to see Connolly squirm, while Bulger plods along, a paint-by-numbers mob boss.
My review in 100 words or less: Depp is almost too good and the movie too sophisticated for the general audience. This is almost an art film, not grabbing for cheap drama, but putting some complicated characters in front of the audience for their perusal. As a feature, it could use a little more umph – but it’s hard to say just where that should be. I think a flashback or two defining Bulger’s childhood would have helped — that or a potential exploration of his participation in LSD trial studies. Still, I give Black Mass a solid 3.5 stars, even though it is bombing at the box office.