Once upon a time, and not so long ago, it would have been a thinly veiled insult - or at least a dismissive reference - to say a movie looked like television. The tables have since turned, though; the renaissance of long-form serial television means it's now a compliment of the highest order to say a movie looks like a television. It's a back-handed compliment to be sure, and one that should very ambiguously be meted out to Black Mass, Scott Cooper's abridged adaptation of Boston newsmen Dick Lehr and Gerard O'Neill's tale of infamous Southie mobster Whitey Bulger's decades-long collaboration with the FBI - a film with so many good things going for itself it's a shame it never really gets where it wants to go. It seems to hark back to Francis Coppola and Martin Scorsese's new-Hollywood mobster classics like The Godfather and Goodfellas, but also to David Chase's groundbreaking Sopranos, in its desire to transcend the archetype and give actual flesh-and-blood humanity to its characters. Mr. Cooper has the cast to do it, starting with a seething Johnny Depp's brooding turn as Bulger; the director also has the wherewithal to create strong, starkly shot setpieces. What he doesn't have, weirdly enough - or doesn't give himself enough of - is time.
Clocking in at two hours sharp, Black Mass's sprawling plot is being constantly cut short or pulled back to the central relationship between Bulger and Joel Edgerton's John Connolly, the ambitious FBI agent bewitched by the gangster's larger-than-life status. Most of the parallel threads seem to be there just to be ticked off in a perfunctory checklist; the story supposedly takes place over 20 years, but everything seems to flash by in a matter of months, while allegedly key characters are briefly introduced only to be discarded as quickly. Mr. Cooper is good enough that he allows his ensemble cast enough time to explain why they're cast (none more than Peter Sarsgaard's unhinged Brian Halloran), but not so good that he can wrestle the film into more than an underachieving gangster story, compressing a whole season of a TV series into a two-hour movie. We often complain a film goes on for too long; for once, this one doesn't go on for long enough.
US, UK, 2015, 123 minutes
Starring Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Rory Cochrane, Jesse Plemons, W. Earl Brown, David Harbour, Dakota Johnson, Julianne Nicholson, Kevin Bacon, Corey Stoll, Peter Sarsgaard, Adam Scott, Juno Temple
Directed by Scott Cooper; screenplay by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth based on the book Black Mass by Dick Lehr and Gerard O'Neill; cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi (widescreen); music by Tom Holkenburg; production designer Stefania Cella; costume designer Kasia Walicka Maimone; editor David Rosenbloom; producers John Lesher, Brian Oliver, Mr. Cooper, Patrick McCormick and Tyler Thompson, for Warner Bros. Pictures and Cross Creek Pictures in association with Ratpac-Dune Entertainment, Le Grisbi Productions, Free State Pictures, Head Gear Films and Vendian Entertainment
Screened September 25th 2015, NOS Colombo 1, Lisbon, distributor press screening