2015 has been the year of comebacks. George Miller's return to the the franchise that made him a directing legend, Pixar's return to original non-sequel work, Shyamalan's return to form with The Visit and the same predicament for Ridley Scott and his film The Martian. That list just got bigger because Depp has returned to great acting as Whitey Bulger in Black Mass. This performance is exactly what his career needed and he has successfully reminded us why he is one of the greats.
Black Mass is a period piece that examines a world without mercy. It is relentless and cold throughout, unfortunately this is where the film suffers. While there is much to praise indeed, Black Mass is an insanely heartless film and not just in terms of the characters intentions, but in terms of the tone. It follows one of the most scandalous relationships between the FBI and the criminal underworld and in doing so, director Scott Cooper has decided to make such a dark and almost twisted film that he leaves an emotional core at the doorstep.
FBI Agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) grew up as close friends with the Bulger brothers: James 'Whitey' Bulger (Depp) and Billy Bulger (Benedict Cumberbatch) and therefore their trust and bond is unbreakable. With the intentions of taking down Mafia, Connolly enlists Whitey as an informant, guaranteeing that he will protect him so long as he doesn't murder anyone.
This is a film strictly about business. These characters set out to do something and more often than not they attain their goal with very little obstacles to overcome. Anytime Whitey wants someone out of the picture, he gets what he wants. If Billy wants the FBI to stop harassing him, they stop and if Connolly wants his wife to accept the man he's becoming, she eventually does. It's a very simple story with very complex characters that don't mix together very well. The acting on everyone's part is great and we get a phenomenal performance not only from Depp but also from Edgerton, who is still criminally underrated but slowly becoming more recognized as a true auteur. Everyone who was a part of this film brings it their all, you can see the passion in their eyes but unfortunately they are playing such emotionless characters that it is incredibly difficult to be invested in their stories. The only story we are focused on is the main overarching narrative but each of the characters are so flat that in the end we don't care about them. We simply want to see them get from point A to point B but there's no emotional payoff when they succeed. We don't root for any of the protagonists or antagonists because we just can't. The only reasons some characters are relatable is because we know them as the actors. We care for Connolly because it's Edgerton, but not because it's Connolly. This doesn't take away from the acting whatsoever, but more the script. The story is engaging but the characters aren't and that takes away from the entire experience.
Earlier this year, Mad Max: Fury Road opened up a spotlight for composer Junkie XL aka Tom Holkenborg. Junkie XL has been madly prominent in film composing for years, usually collaborating with the likes of Hans Zimmer. However, after his work in Mad Max: Fury Road that was completely his own, he became a musical sensation in the film universe. His underscore for Black Mass is compelling and strangely, incredibly beautiful. Whitey Bulger's theme is heavy on strings, seemingly a favorite section of XL's, but it comes off as both dark and harmonious. Unlike Mad Max: Fury Road where the score was over-the-top and chaotic, this score is very subtle and slowly gets under your skin. It's another home run for XL.
Stylistically, Black Mass thrives. The color palette and production design is excellent, really setting the tone for the atmosphere and era. Nothing feels staged or too planned out, everything is presented naturally and is captured with careful attention to detail. Masanobu Takayanagi's cinematography is actually quite bold. The placement and movement of the camera during more dynamic scenes is rather unconventional but allows for some great character moments and draws us into this world even more.
It is without a doubt that Black Mass had major expectations to live up to. The marketing really pushed that it was going to be something new but unfortunately Black Mass has nothing new to offer. Scott Cooper's direction is taut but other than several ambitious camera blocking and a phenomenal ensemble led by Depp and Edgerton, Black Mass isn't all that special. The script is hallow and a slow burn that feels unnatural at some parts. Still, it's a movie worth watching simply for Depp's comeback, Edgerton's performance and a quick getaway to this time period.