“Black Mass”

“Black Mass”
Directed by Scott Cooper

black-mass-official-main-trailerAs evidenced by the promo still above, this movie is mostly about prosthetics. Cooper and Depp have created an engaging (although not thrilling) Cliff notes version of a very unique and specific place at a very unique and specific time…South Boston (Southie) in the mid ’80’s. And as a history lesson, it’s not bad. But they were so obviously shooting for  another “Goodfellas”, and in that quest, they failed miserably.

The visual feel of the film is terrific and the dialogue mostly paints the right image. And, while it never drags,  there isn’t enough of a three act structure to let it build to anything. It ends with a shrug, like they ran out of time and had to wrap it up with ten “where are they now” title cards, and a satisfying coda. Finally, Cooper makes the odd choice of fade-to-black at the completion of the most intense scenes…and a dramatic music swell…as if we’re going to a commercial. Maybe that’s how he decided to announce the next act, or maybe he thought it would add to the drama. All it accomplished was giving me time to let my mind wander out of the world of the film.

Okay, time to get to the Oscar question: Is Depp’s performance award worthy? Meh. Depp is excellent in his performance of emotion and reaction, but you never for a second believe he is of this place and time. And all the accouterments  – hair, teeth, eyes – are so unnecessary. We will suspend our disbelief! If you had decided not to wear those ridiculous fake teeth, no one in the audience would turn to their partner and say “This is bullshit. EVERYONE knows Whitey Bulger had terrible teeth!” Relax, Johnny. Don’t be so literal. You want proof? Watch “Steve Jobs.” So instead of becoming engrossed in his character’s journey, I spent the whole movie wondering how long it took him, and Joel Edgerton, and Benedict Cumberbatch, to put on their makeup? Seriously, every scene I was mesmerized…by Depp’s ridiculous bright blue contact lenses, thinking…why?
(side note: Cumberbatch should never ever play a Bostonian again – the accent, oy!)

HOWEVER, the movie starts with the incredible Jesse Plemons. The  first ten minutes of the film is fantastic because he’s the narrator and you think, this is going to be GREAT! And then, poof, he’s gone…relegated to standing in the background, but continuing to draw your eyes away from every scene by simply being the most present actor in the room. I’d LOVE to see the movie where he is the protagonist.

Every other main character overacts their way through the film, especially Edgerton. I’m guessing he was directed to be bigger, since Depp kind of mumbles and sneers…a lot. The minor characters, …especially David Harbour, Corey Stoll, Julianne Nicholson and Dakota Fanning…are great and are the only source of stake in the film. I wanted more of THAT movie. But alas, Depp’s bald wig gets in the way over and over.

As for the score, it’s merely a series of sound beds and chords. It works for the movie fine, but is largely pedestrian and utilitarian. Nina Rota it is not.

Listen, I’m no “Goodfellas” fan boy. But I know the difference between a facsimile and the real McCoy. The editing, the camera motion, the colloquialisms of “Black Mass”…it’s all Scorsese-esque. But the thing they forgot – and I wonder how much of this is due to the lead actor’s input – is that a gangster movie works best when it is an ensemble piece with  a specific point of view. They put together a great cast and failed to take advantage of them. And if you’re trying to create a monster, let us view him through the eyes of those closest to him…not just scene after scene of psychopathic behavior. “Black Mass” is an actor’s exercise – and never borders on being the masterpiece the subject matter deserved.

(btw, watch this trailer, and tell me Plemons doesn’t  make you want to run out and see the film…)

Written on 1/13/2016

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