Director Scott Cooper is by no means a bad filmmaker. He’s just a frustrating one. His movies (the Jeff Bridges country music opus Crazy Heart, which earned the actor his first Oscar; the Christian Bale blue collar revenge pic Out of the Furnace; and Black Mass) have their undeniable merits and are impeccably cast. But they never quite come together. He may have it in him to make a great movie, but so far, he’s made three decent-but-not-spectacular ones.
On paper, Black Mass looks like a sure winner. It’s a biopic of Whitey Bulger (Johnny Depp), a Boston mobster who becomes a local kingpin by teaming up with FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton). Bulger informs on rival mobsters to Connolly; Connolly keeps his bosses off Bulger’s back. Eventually, it becomes a one-sided relationship in favor of Bulger.
If that plot sounds familiar, it’s because Martin Scorsese’s The Departed was loosely patterned on the Bulger case. Black Mass gives Depp his first meaty role in what seems like an eternity. Yes, he’s under heavy makeup as he’s been prone to do lately, but Bulger doesn’t feel like an empty caricature. Cooper fills the supporting roles with a murderer’s row of talent (Benedict Cumberbatch, Kevin Bacon, Corey Stoll, Peter Sarsgaard, Adam Scott).
However, the film has the episodic, connect-the-dots feel many biopics have. The flow’s a little bit off. All too often, characters are introduced and disappear. Crucially, when Bulger kills someone or has him/her killed, that character is usually introduced for a single scene, then killed in the next one. In Goodfellas, the hapless, doomed character of Morrie the wig salesman is tragic because the audience gets to know him before he’s finally killed. While the script can’t give each victim justice without being 4 hours, its “introduce and kill” formula robs the deaths of their impact.
Black Mass is watchable, and Cooper (for now) remains a director to watch, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that this could’ve been a lot better.