Thursday, February 18, 2016

Black Mass


   It's easy to get engrossed in Black Mass because every scene is simply bursting with the promise of more. Unfortunately, it's a promise that never gets fulfilled. I don't know much about the real people this movie deals with, or the book it's based on, so I can't speak to it's accuracy or faithfulness, but as a movie- an entertainment vehicle and nothing else, it's merely adequate. Which is kind of painful to say because Johnny Depp's performance as crime lord James 'Whitey' Bulger is absolutely fantastic. It's just also unfortunate that the movie is neither actually about him, nor does it ever give him much to do. The movie is actually about the FBI agent who seeks to make an alliance with Bulger. Yet, he's much less the interesting character.

   There are scenes in Black Mass that are positively Oscar worthy, but the movie is so unfocused and meandering that you'd be hard pressed to care about anyone in it. Bulger has a wife and a kid when we're introduced to him, but not 20 minutes further into the movie- they disappear from the narrative. Even though this is what happened in real life, it's problematic on-screen and is indicative of the movie's larger issue. The story being told here is so excessively broad and simultaneously thin that it'd be better if instead of trying to tell this massive and lengthy narrative, they had boiled it down to just a week or even a day in his life. Fictionalize it even if necessary. But, as is? It's really hard to get invested in the characters.

  It doesn't have the energy or punch of it's peers- other better crime dramas. Some of them even biopics. It just sort of meanders down through the years, informing us of what's happening, but not really telling us a story. Things happen, and we see them happen, but there's no strong narrative thread going throughout. At just a smidgen over two hours, the movie feels very overlong and a bit redundant. It doesn't end with a bang, it ends with a predictable series of shots with informative text overlaid on them, letting us know how everyone fared over time without actually having to show us. I wonder if this is a necessity of all non-fiction crime dramas. Do they all do that? I had kind of lost interest by that point in the movie, yet I was also holding out hope.

   Hope that there would be some yet-to-be-seen part that would make everything click. Something impressive or at least engaging. There's plenty of stunning character moments, but they're so detached and uninvolved with the plot that they're pretty irrelevant. The lead characters go through the motions of your average well-made gangster flick, and they all deliver their performances with gusto. Hands are slammed on desks, accents sound as good as they're going to get, the violence is raw, and the atmosphere is immersive. Nevertheless, Black Mass is never all that hard-hitting. It seems assembled from familiar parts from other, better gangster movies. Not one of my favorite genres, but I'm a sucker for a good bad-guy/anti-hero story as much as the next guy.

   It's all the more disappointing then that Black Mass is lacking the spark and energy to make it truly engaging. Movies like this, when done right, also thrive on secondary characters but Black Mass is quick to relegate actors like Corey Stoll, Peter Sarsgaard, and Kevin Bacon to bit parts that never amount to much. Sure, they're essential to the movie because they're based on real people who really existed and affected the lives of our main characters, but a tighter and more focused narrative would've given them much more to do, and it would've been much more interesting. It's also worth noting that female characters never stick around for long in the movie. Whether that's a problem of the movie itself, a byproduct of the genre, or if it's simply because the world that Black Mass is about is every bit as misogynistic as it is criminal- I've no idea. But it's certainly one of those things.

   Johnny Depp's performance as Whitey Bulger is captivating, and I'm sure the movie would've been on his level if it was actually about him, but it's not. Thus the movie follows around much less interesting characters, all played by actors giving 100%, but it doesn't matter much. When all is said and done, the movie is worth watching at least once for Depp's performance if nothing else, but there's so much more the genre has to offer, and better stuff at that. You could find better movies on Netflix, or even in the bargain bin at Wal-Mart. I'm not saying Black Mass is bad... it's just fairly underwhelming. I liked it, but honestly? Given the level of talent involved? I should've loved it. And, that's just inexcusable. Save your money, see The Iceman instead.

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