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'Black Mass' is more like an outline for a killer 'Whitey' Bulger movie

Johnny Depp is semi-restrained as Boston crime god "Whitey" Bulger in "Black Mass," a structural mess that can sometimes trick you into thinking it's strong.

‘Black Mass’
Director:
Scott Cooper
Stars: Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton
Rating: R
2 (out of 5) Globes

Every now and then during the “Whitey” Bulger movie “Black Mass” you might think you’re watching an underworld classic. The tone is somber and heavy, not Scorsese knockoff-cool. An all-star cast of great actors swing by in every scene to ooze gravitas and sliminess. You might even be able to forgive their dodgy Boston accents, which veer drunkenly all over the place, sometimes in the same sentence. And you might even convince yourself that the scenes they’re in aren’t hoaringly expository yet still hard to parse, or that the screenplay itself isn’t a shambling mess, trying to cram decades of violence, corruption and general ne’er-do-well-ism into a mere hair over two hours. It winds up a film that feels at once rushed and slow, going nowhere but not fast.

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Credit where credit’s due: it doesn’t take the easy way in. It could have simply zeroed in on the Boston crime lord himself, played by Johnny Depp. It could have also easily followed John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), the fed who found himself corrupted by — and eventually jailed for — his ties to Bulger’s unit. Both may have been too obvious entrypoints, and what “Black Mass” does instead is hypothetically noble, and maybe crazily ambitious given the running time. It opens with one of Bulger’s associates, Kevin Weeks (Jesse Plemons, who, as always, so looks and sounds like Matt Damon it’s inexplicable he’s not a relation), ratting him out, while averring that he’s no rat. But Kevin soon disappears into the background, as he is one of many turning stool pigeon. The idea is a sound one: take a broader view of the Bulger’s empire and the government agencies who should have stopped him but, because he was technically an informant, could not.

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But doing that would require, especially in the “Black Mass”’s relatively audience-friendly run time, precision and rigor, which the script does not have. Instead it fumbles around without a focus, sketching Bulger’s rise from a feared yet loved Southie god in the ’70s to king of the city in broad strokes. There’s a darkly funny idea here: the people who should bust him can’t, even as he guns down nemeses, sometimes in broad daylight himself, all while racketeering his way to a swollen cash cow. But this isn’t a comedy, and this isn’t a film that knows how to stay alert anyway. Often times it feels like one of the last few “Harry Potter” movies: made for those who already know the story, leaving out massive chunks of important exposition that informed viewers will unconsciously fill in with their memories, leaving those new to the tale not a little bit lost.

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Bulger himself is less the central goon than just one of the many supporting players. That seems to be on purpose. He is, the film argues, an enigma: a bag of contradictions, who will have a goon who slighted him whacked one minute then lovingly help an old lady with her groceries the next. Depp is doing one of his extreme make-overs, only for a real person this time, and his look this season is Nosferatu: pale with rotting teeth and creepy contacts that shrink his pupils to the size of a dagger’s point. And yet Depp is, for him, restrained, and you can see a performance that knows how to shift between bottomless love — for his son, mostly — and psycho in miniscule increments. But there’s not much there there for him to play, and little in the way of an arc. Twice a narrator tells us of the impact deaths of loved ones had on him, but he remains the same casual monster throughout. Those turning him in look ashen, but only one, played by Rory Cochrane, has any specific reason for being disillusioned. Everyone else goes along with Bulger then suddenly jumps ship.

And so we’re left grasping madly at incidental pleasures, which are not uncommon. Every actor is on game, even if their accents often aren’t, and even when they’re given so little to do with minimal screentime. Some, like Kevin Bacon and Corey Stoll, just show up and do themselves. Peter Sarsgaard scores a few scenes doing an off-type sweaty cokehead routine. The women get but a moment or two of agency, though only Juno Temple gets to seize upon her tiny screentime. Edgerton, as is his bag, effortlessly conveys the misplaced braggadocio of someone who’s convinced himself that keeping Bulger untouched is for a greater good. The film itself seems to operate under a delusion too, thinking it’s getting the job done by hitting all the key plot points and, when things turn muddled, at least falling back on terrific actors. But it’s a void about a void who’s in fact not a void but a person who, in the movie sense at least, deserves better.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge
 
 
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