Dig Baton Rouge

Film in Review

By Bill Arceneaux

“How could you be so cold?”

Black Mass is, I’m afraid to state, a bad movie. It’s lethargic when “intense” and dull when “full of zest.” I didn’t go in wanting it to be poor – that notion of a critic wanting to dislike and hate is a mostly untrue myth – as I had heard all the same things everyone else had about Johnny Depp’s performance as infamous gangster Whitey Bulger. His makeup job certainly reminds me of Nosferatu, though that may have been unintentional. His colorless eyes certainly bring to mind a soulless entity, which I assume was intentional. And his acting provides not much more than a delivery mechanism for well-written dialogue. Well-written for him.

Disappointing to the last. Tiring in the first.

By tiring, I don’t mean tired. Tired would suggest that this genre or style or general story is too played out and has been done better by others. You could make that argument, but I think gangster pictures will always have an appeal, probably for the loud mouth excessiveness and dramatic rise and fall of the lead characters. On top of that, I feel that there will always be ways for these films to explore the dark side of humanity that are different and fresh. By tiring, I mean that Black Mass is a slog to watch. Bostonians in federal offices talk, and talk, and cuss, and yell, and talk some more, sometimes for years in story terms, without much happening. The happenings, the moments of interest, end up being repetitive conversations between the same people, over and over again. The pacing is so turtle-slow throughout; you’d think the director was stalling.

For a movie this slow, the actors should have room to impress and astonish. In fact, that was my guess early on as to why the overall energy was low. This is an ensemble cast, so why not let them stretch their muscles. Aside from the main players, people appear only to disappear quickly, without being given the opportunity to represent something more than a person reading lines. This isn’t to say that there are bad performances – a movie where almost everyone has an accent does have the potential for that – just mostly serviceable ones. Lackluster, too.

Now, the main event, Johnny Depp. The entire film gravitates around him, both the character and actor. It knows who is going to sell this to audiences. The manner in which the story is laid out suggests that his role, the central focus, was going to be an inciting factor in changing others and crafting their arcs. To play someone so bad that he burns all the lives around him must be fun and exciting. Except that we’re given a peek behind the curtain, and see flashes of a heartbeat. Too many flashes, I think. This weakens and undercuts the telling of the tale. Instead of Whitey being this unfathomable black hole that sucks in everyone around him, he becomes another victim. Another to care about and for, instead of pick apart and analyze.

Black Mass is not, like its title suggests, a cancer. There are some good scenes and inspired moments. But they are few and far between, and hard to notice when you’re snoring. It’s a misfire of sorts that could’ve been more than a merely generic textbook, I’m afraid to state.

2 / 5 *s

For more from the author, follow him on Twitter at @BillReviews and @FlickerFading.

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