The following contains spoilers for Black Mass. You have been warned.
James: Alright, so before we really get into Black Mass, I’m curious about what you thought of Johnny Depp’s performance. Early reviews seemed to indicate this was perhaps a return to form for the actor. Agree? Disagree?
Erik: Well, first off I did enjoy his performance a lot, but even without all the hype going into it, I would have expected it to good, because Depp is a really good actor (which a startling number of people appear to have forgotten), if given something to work with. I realize the last couple of movies he’s been in (where he’s the lead at least) have been pretty awful, but I never got the sense it was a lack of effort or talent on his part – The Lone Ranger was going to suck no matter who you cast. So, I was glad he chose to do something with an above average script. I don’t know if this is a signal that “Johnny Depp is back” or anything, especially considering he’s got another Alice and Wonderland and something like the 28th Pirates movie coming up.
James: Depp is indeed a terrific actor. A wonderfully idiosyncratic performer who in his best performances (Ed Wood, Donnie Brasco, Edward Scissorhands, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?) is able to deftly modulate a performance with an incredible mix of humanity and technique. That Depp has done little else but flailing blockbusters and Tim Burton cartoons for the past fews years makes him a bit of a punching bag. I don’t really think his turn in Black Mass marks a revelatory comeback or anything like that but it’s refreshing that he vaguely resembles a person again (hokey make-up job aside).
Erik: Honestly, I think people (and critics) enjoy the narrative arc of an actor who is lagging a bit, and then does something everyone loves. They latch onto it, heap praise, and then god help the performer if he doesn’t follow it up with something just as mind blowing. Remember the story of Mickey Rourke? His career lags, he does The Wrestler, everyone loses their shit, he doesn’t do anything quite as spectacular afterward, and suddenly no one’s interested in talking about him anymore. Luckily for Depp, he has the mountains of money his bad films did make to fall back on. Wow, that got off topic. So, Black Mass….
James: We got off subject quickly– that may not bode too well for the movie itself. One thought before we leave Depp (which I suppose we won’t be leaving entirely), but we latch onto the narrative as a way to process what’s going on, I suppose. Depp is in a dry spell, or such in such is on a hot streak, now we can’t wait for those patterns to reverse just to spice things up. Anyhow, what did you think of the movie as a whole?
Erik: I did like it. Not only for Depp’s performance; just about all the actors were in fine form. I was particularly surprised by Jesse Plemons, who – while very good – has mostly played some variation on the slightly awkward young man character-type (used to great effect in Breaking Bad). Here, he was actually playing a character, and an intimidating one at that – one of the first scenes in the movie is just him glaring at the camera, looking like he’s ready to kill someone. He’s an actor I never thought I’d find scary. Peter Sarsgaard was great as an out-of-his-mind, coked-up snitch. Joel Edgerton is having a good couple of months, what with this coming out so soon after The Gift. And Benedict Cumberbatch continues to impress me any time he put up an accent considering he’s got one of the most English voices on the planet (seriously, he did a way better southern accent than Ewan McGregor in August: Osage County). Beyond the performances, I have some issues, but what did you think about the cast?
James: The ensemble cast is definitely the high point here. I also want to give a huge shout out to W. Earl Brown (who plays goon John Martorano)- Black Mass affirms once again that burly character actors will always find a place in Boston-set gangster films. Yet, as fondly as I think of the actors, I am still rather cool on the film as a whole. We haven’t mentioned this yet but the “true story” of Black Mass is based on the infamous East Coast kingpin James ‘Whitey’ Bulger and for all the stuff that occurs in this rather overstuffed yet kind of shapeless bio/crime story, I can’t really say I learned too much about Bulger at all. How did you feel the film handled its subject?
Erik: I don’t know a whole lot about Bulger, but from the little I do, it seems like the guy was a real monster. Maybe the filmmakers didn’t want to give the audience too much information about him, while at the same time not completely alter his personality, because that would run the risk of making him so unsympathetic that no one would want to spend the length of a movie with him. Then again, I don’t know if the point of the film was to present a biography of James Bulger, as much as it was to show the downfall of John Connolly (Edgerton). For me it didn’t feel necessary to learn about Bulger as much as it was to understand his actions and how they moved the story forward.
James: Full agreement on Bulger as a monster, but by not delving too deeply into Bulger’s history, it made it difficult for me to register with the film and Depp’s performance on an emotional or intellectual level. It felt like Black Mass seemed overly familiar, sort of like a GoodFellas-lite or something like that. That lack of character development kept the movie from truly rising above just a run of the mill gangster movie. That being said, I quite liked Edgerton’s performance and his character of the FBI agent who thinks he’s gotten Bulger in as an informant. There’s a nuance and history there that’s the most interesting aspect of the movie in that Connolly was once a peer of Bulger’s and a general feeling that Connolly is boosted by a sense of being included by the cool kids or something like that. I felt that might have been a stronger framework of the story if told in a more slender, thoughtful manner. Instead, that character feels marginalized and off to the side most of the time and Black Mass feels all over the map without a much-needed center.
Erik: I actually had a similar thought. Narratively, the film is kind of a mess. It has this great framing device where you’re getting the story told by Bulger’s former gang members after they’ve been caught, so early on I thought we’d go very deep into each of their characters. That didn’t really happen. Kevin Weeks (Plemons) seems like he’s going to have a big role in the story, but all you really see is his recruitment and then he’s just kind of in the background for the rest of the film. Same with the other members; they each get their little moments, but the main focus is usually on Connolly and Bulger. The reason something like Goodfellas can get away with having loads of characters but not going into most of their histories is because it’s framed by one narrator, so we feel comfortable if he’s the only one we really get to know. I feel Black Mass should have given generous screen time to all of the important characters (and increase its runtime by at least another twenty minutes) or picked one character (preferably Connolly or Bulger) and told the story completely from their perspective. At least then we would have gotten a clear idea of what the film wanted to be.
James: It’s always going to a problem if a film gets compared to something like GoodFellas, a top-tier movie from one of the best directors ever (curiously, Scorsese’s The Departed incorporated a bit of the Bulger legend as Jack Nicholson’s character was an exaggerated iteration) but still Black Mass just felt like a missed opportunity on so many fronts. Yes, the big sprawling ensemble is strong throughout (and many have estimable, if sometimes infuriatingly little moments to shine- even Dakota Johnson was effective as Bulger’s baby mama) but the pace, the flow, the energy just never felt there. The filmmaking just felt to me a bit slack all the way through- there’s really no scene or image or moment that lingered in my brain for more than half a second. Director Scott Cooper made a handsome, but mostly forgettable-looking, movie from what my eyes could see.
Erik: There’s a lot of storytelling potential with this real-life-story, and so many different angles you could go at it with. Maybe it was just an issue of having too many possibilities and ideas and not being able to settle on just one. Another thing I just want to get out is, I thought the film ended very abruptly. And then we got hit with so much post-story text (explaining what happened to everyone), I thought they could have filmed some of that. At the very least, some of Whitey on the run – unless their makeup budget ran out and they couldn’t afford to make Depp look any older.
James: They used up the bulk of the budget on Depp’s Nosferatu-inspired make-up and hairstyling effects. I agree there’s too much post text, kind of the vein of similar “burying the lead” recent true stories like Unbroken, American Sniper and The Imitation Game but that doesn’t really explain the fact that whole thing prior to that seems rather arbitrarily put together in the first place.
Erik: Well regardless, this movie did at least confirm one thing for me: Johnny Depp needs to play a super-villain at some point. I mean you said it yourself, the guy basically looked like a vampire, and I’m sure we’re due for a Blade reboot in the future. Hell, Cumberbatch is playing Doctor Strange, there’s gotta be some freaky, heavy-make-up-needed-to-bring-it-to-life demon in his rogues gallery, and then we can have a fun Black Mass reunion.
James: Let’s not give anyone any ideas.