Black Mass (2015)

Directed by Scott Cooper

Contains spoilers.

True story movies are typically good. You can't do much to mess up the story or dialogue because they're largely set already. The production, acting, and the style of narrative, however, are up to you. Black Mass is a true story, or at least is based on one, and turns into a pretty interesting mess.

Jimmy "Whitey" Bulger (Johnny Depp) is a pretty unimportant gangster. He's tough as hell and smart, but not like the Italian mob bosses. When he sees an opportunity to increase his position and income and take out some enemies in the process, he's smart enough to take advantage. John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) is an FBI agent who grew up in South Boston, was friends with Jimmy's brother, Billy, and has just been assigned to FBI's Boston office to help the organized crime unit. He approaches Jimmy with an offer: work together to take down the Italian mob families and the FBI will [mostly] ignore his illicit activities. Jimmy accepts after a while, and takes full advantage of the FBI actively ignoring him. Misinformation and lies start to abound as Jimmy takes out his enemies and spreads his influence, moving up in the world and helping Connolly along, too, as Connolly covers up Jimmy's lack of provided information. But Connolly's lies and Jimmy's killing ends up out of control as people start to put the pieces together.

Johnny Depp as Jimmy Bulger is one of the best performances in his career. He's intense, smart, scary, and strong. Joel Edgerton is also great, as are Kevin Bacon, Jesse Plemons, Peter Sarsgaard, and just about everyone else. Benedict Cumberbatch as Billy, however, retains a slight English accent behind all of his hard work; as he only appears a few times for a combined 5 minutes or so, that's not a big deal.

The direction is a little mystifying. The narrative is back and forth with current-day interviews and monologues over flashbacks, which make up the majority of the story. So it's a little uncertain who the movie is actually about and who's story is being told. Most information seems to be about Jimmy Bulger while Connolly shares almost an equal amount of screen time.


Don't misunderstand me. Black Mass feels like a carefully crafted film. But exactly what Cooper wanted audiences to get from it eludes me. The finished film feels almost piecemeal; it's unorganized and jumps back and forth, with voiceover narration/exposition from different people at different times. Many scenes seem to be included purely to show how ruthless or badass Jimmy is, without having much narrative significance. There's an entire subplot about the IRA that could've been reduced to a couple sentences of dialogue but instead ends with Jimmy using a few feet of rope to choke a tied-up man to death; there are references that are never or hardly expanded upon, like Jesse Plemons' character specifically saying there's a spot that received a colloquial name because of how many people the gang buried there, yet after the scene showing it, it's only mentioned one more time, and not even specifically but in passing. Although the movie moves mostly linearly, there's a lot in Black Mass that feels out of place and the atmosphere never really settles.

Exposition is ridiculously plentiful but we don't actually learn much from it. Most information is about the story itself and reveals plot points, so characters come off a little stiff. Motivation is lacking in excess, so while we understand the story it still doesn't seem to make a lot of sense beyond how it unfolds. And as it is with a story that takes place over many years, the events portrayed need to be carefully selected, but it ends up feeling like a long series of excerpts to show us what a terrible (and smart) guy Jimmy is and how deceitful and subversive Connolly is. And although technically, they are breaking the law, the movie doesn't seem to fit into the crime genre. The Winter Hill Gang defends their turf and Connolly illegally runs his investigation, but outside of Jimmy's multiple murders the movie never expands on the gang's actual illegal business dealings. We see racketeering, but never actually see any money laundering, bookkeeping, or drug dealing outside of a couple references to their "businesses."

Besides a messy story and other plentiful, yet small, complaints, the movie remains entertaining. Seeing Jimmy's escapades is relentlessly intriguing. As a character he's a mad, creepy case study. He's scary, ruthless, smart with his dealings, can read below the surface of a situation, and knows that he's powerful. Despite a long string of side characters whose only purpose is to be killed or deny involvement, Black Mass takes the audience for a thrilling ride through Jimmy Bulger's life and some specific failures of the FBI. Maybe it could've been told better, but in the end it's still entertaining, at the very least.


TL;DR: The story of Jimmy Bulger is definitely interesting. It's utterly capable of keeping one entertained for a couple hours and with Johnny Depp as the lead it's more than worth the cost of a ticket. But as far as crime movies go, I think I'll stick to Goodfellas.

  • Acting – 17 / 20
  • Story – 10 / 20
  • Cinematography – 16 / 20
  • Soundtrack – 7 / 10
  • Entertainment Factor – 8 / 10
  • Crime/Drama – 4 / 10
  • Other – 0 / 10

Grade D = 62 / 100