Black Mass – “Dateworthy”?

Johnny Depp is an actor who knows how to completely submerge himself in a role, and for most of his career, he has been putting those skills into the service of quirky movies kids could enjoy, ranging from “Pirates of the Caribbean” to “Alice in Wonderland” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” But in the last few years, he’s had one flop after another with flicks like “Dark Shadows” and “The Lone Ranger,” and many fans have been wondering when he’s going to try something completely different than being whimsical and painted in makeup.
Well, he’s delivered that switcheroo this weekend, with the unfortunately titled “Black Mass,” in which he plays the real-life, legendary crime lord Jim “Whitey” Bulger, who terrified Boston for years before abruptly disappearing when the feds closed in on him. Bulger lived in hiding for a dozen years before the law caught up with him in Santa Monica, California in 2011 and finally brought him to justice.

Before I get into the plot or anything else, I do want to address that I think Hollywood’s timing in putting out the movie is, well, interesting. The release date for “Black Mass” was set right around the time that Pope Francis’ American visit was first announced by the Vatican, and so it’s at best odd timing that His Holiness will have to travel around big cities with the movie’s poster and its title constantly shoved in his face.
But the title of the movie may not be as nefarious as it seems. It’s the same as the book it’s based upon, and that book referred to “Black Mass” not for any direct Satanic purpose but as a hint towards Bulger’s odd dual life as a man who was a ruthless killer and drug kingpin at the same time he attended Mass and sat silently in his local parish even amidst his worst reign.

The movie kicks off in the 1970s and South Boston, aka “Southie,” the same kind of place seen in Ben Affleck’s far more involving films “Gone Baby Gone” and “The Town” (for my money, the best heist movie of the past 20 years next to “Heat.”) An FBI agent named John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) wants to bring down the Italian Mob from the north side of Boston, and decides the fastest and easiest way to do it is by teaming up with his old childhood buddy, Whitey Bulger (Johnny Depp).

When they first talk, Bulger is still a fairly small-time street king, but as he provides info that can take down the Italians and other criminals, Connolly starts looking the other way about his criminal activities. Soon, the Mob is brought down and Bulger has managed to take over much of their trade – and all the lies, double-talk and other help Connolly has provided comes back to haunt him when a new FBI boss notices just how chummy he and Whitey are.

From there, the movie is a slow-burn examination of corruption and what the lines are that good men will cross and that bad men ultimately won’t. While this is interesting philosophical and moral territory (albeit STRICTLY for adult viewers, and even then, only those not easily offended), it’s ultimately empty and depressing as well.

The problem with a true-crime picture is that it’s almost impossible to hide the ending from viewers, because their sensational subjects often made national news when they were finally shot dead or apprehended. So the point of watching the movie has to lie in how well it casts its spell along the way to that foregone conclusion, and providing moviegoers with a fascinating portrait of how someone becomes evil.

Usually, Hollywood remembers to include a heroic lawman to root for along the way. Yet while the movie is beautifully shot, has a fantastic score that would be worth listening to aside from the film, and has terrific acting across the board, it’s strangely off-putting at best and scummy at worst. When everyone in it is evil, and their actions get progressively worse throughout the movie, it’s impossible to sympathize with anyone.

So, is it Dateworthy? If you feel like being depressed and wallowing in bad to evil behavior, it could be. But there are definitely more romantic or uplifting movies at the box office or coming next week (a la Sept. 25 release “The Intern” with Anne Hathaway and Robert DeNiro), so keep your date pleasant and probably skip this one.

As you’ll see in another movie column coming later this week, there are plenty of more uplifting movies out there now. In fact, there’s likely to be three Christian-themed movies at the box office this weekend – “War Room,” “90 Minutes in Heaven,” and “Captive” – and any of those will put your mind in a better pre-Papal-visit place than “Black Mass.”