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New Johnny Depp movie Black Mass is Obviously Failed Oscarbait. Learn to spot the signs.

Johnny Depp plays renowned crime lord James "Whitey" Bulger in Black Mass.
Johnny Depp plays renowned crime lord James "Whitey" Bulger in Black Mass.
Warner Bros.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Around a half-hour into Black Mass, the new Johnny Depp vehicle that tells the story of famed Boston crime kingpin James "Whitey" Bulger, you might have a familiar sinking feeling.



Nothing on screen is bad, exactly. It's all handsomely mounted and strikingly shot. The performances are all good, and the dialogue has a muted grandeur. But you'll also notice just how unriveted you are, just how little you can bring yourself to care about what's happening up on screen.

In other words, you, too, might find yourself watching Obviously Failed Oscarbait.

There's nothing wrong with you. You can survive this situation. The prescription is simple: Wait out the movie. You'll likely find a few things to enjoy, then write off the rest of it. And when you look at other movies with obvious aspirations to a full bushel of Academy Awards, you can be better forewarned. After all, there are multiple cases of Obviously Failed Oscarbait diagnosed every year.

Here are some of the key signs of the sickness.

The actors are really giving it their all — even when there's no "all" to give

Julianne Nicholson stars in Black Mass.

Julianne Nicholson turns in a terrific performance in a tiny, nothing part.

Warner Bros.

This is the surest sign of Obviously Failed Oscarbait. Movies taking aim at the Oscars are often the best chance actors have to sink their teeth into weighty material, so even if nothing is quite working, they'll keep pushing. This is especially true in Black Mass. Literally every performer in this movie is steadfastly committed to selling the story they're in, even when they have nothing to do.

This begins with Depp, who feels as engaged by the role of Bulger as anything in the last 10 years. Depp has always been a surface-level technician when it comes to acting. There's nothing wrong with that, necessarily, but it means he can sometimes feel lost without a series of performative tricks and tics.

This character has plenty of those — including a makeup job that makes him look a bit like Lord Voldemort — but Depp breaks through that surface to find a kind of dark, rich soul. (Watch the way his eyes seem to deaden a little more with every scene.) His performance actually makes the movie seem better than it is much of the time.

Everybody else in this movie is doing great work, too — and there are a lot of actors you will recognize in this movie. From Joel Edgerton as the FBI agent who forms an "alliance" with Bulger that winds both men in its tendrils to Benedict Cumberbatch as Bulger's political bigwig brother, the film is filled with fascinating character sketches that could have supported their own movies.

Of particular note is Julianne Nicholson, as the wife of Edgerton's character, a woman who tries to avoid becoming complicit in the evil her husband invites into her home. It's a nothing part, but Nicholson turns it into a virtuouso character in just a handful of scenes. This is the kind of performance that used to win supporting actress prizes back when you could win one for just a few minutes of screentime.

The story feels like it's been cut down by several hours

The cast of Black Mass.

The complicated relationship that develops between Bulger's crew and the FBI dominates much of the film.

Warner Bros.

Black Mass either needed to be a lot shorter — a lean and mean story about how Bulger used the FBI to expand his criminal empire — or a lot longer: an HBO miniseries that took on the entire life and death of said empire. At its two-hour running time, the film feels at once overstuffed and incomplete.

Reportedly, lots and lots was cut from the film (including an entire subplot involving actress Sienna Miller), and it's easy to feel all of that missing material in the way the story lurches haphazardly among various aborted plotlines. The strongest stuff involves Bulger's relationship with the FBI, but that will be put on hold to occasionally examine his relationship with his brother, or the FBI's eventual pursuit of him, or even a criminal-run jai alai empire. (Yes, there is a subplot about a jai alai empire.)

Obviously Failed Oscarbait often tries to incorporate every single part of the epic story it's trying to tell — usually because it wants to leave in every bit of research on a true story or every subplot from an acclaimed novel. And then, once the first, lugubrious cut is delivered to the studio, editors begin taking a hacksaw to it. That usually results in something like this, which shuffles along, never quite finding another gear.

The film indulges in ambiguity for ambiguity's sake

Black Mass

Bulger might be a stone-cold killer, but he loves his mother, too! Wow!

Warner Bros.

Ambiguity is preferable in storytelling, especially about darker characters like Bulger. Nobody is all good or all bad.

But it's usually good to communicate some sort of directorial point of view lurking behind the camera. Wolf of Wall Street, for instance, presented its characters' shenanigans as a raucous party, but it was impossible to escape the way director Martin Scorsese seemed troubled by how easy it is to swindle the American public.

There's no such point of view in Black Mass, which wants to indulge in Bulger's crimes (when he's gunning down those who've crossed him indiscriminately) but also wants us to be appalled by his actions. It swerves randomly between the two poles, with no rhyme or reason to its thematic structure. That leaves the final sequences, when Bulger's empire crumbles, incredibly hard to parse and dramatically unsatisfying.

The pace is stately — to the point of being a slog

Jesse Plemons stars in Black Mass.

Jesse Plemons turns up here and there as one of Bulger's flunkies. He's fine, but never has all that much to do.

Warner Bros.

Director Scott Cooper and his technical crew have turned Black Mass into one handsome picture. There's barely a frame in this film that doesn't feel fussed over. A particular favorite shot of mine involves Bulger seeming to blend into his mother's wallpaper after she passes, an acute visual representation of the grief he feels but cannot articulate.

But that focus on handsomeness at all costs also causes the film to lose some of its forward momentum. Every time the film seems as if it might be finding something to propel it out of first gear, it steps back for another stately, well-designed scene. Cooper's camera takes in the beautiful sets and costumes, the gorgeous cinematography, the slightly sinister makeup.

These are beautiful technical achievements, really. Any of them would be Oscar nomination-worthy, separate from the movie they're in. But they provide the feeling of the film being a museum piece, trapped in amber by its own ambitions.

It assumes its importance thanks to its source material

Benedict Cumberbatch and Joel Edgerton star in Black Mass.

Benedict Cumberbatch and Joel Edgerton are also in this movie. Sure.

Warner Bros.

Everything that happened in Black Mass really happened, and the film takes great pleasure in reminding us of this in as many ways as possible. Dates flash on the screen. A lengthy post-movie sequence lets us know exactly where all of these characters are in reality. Everything feels impeccably researched.

But nothing here feels like a story. It feels like a collection of facts, assembled in chronological order (with a few inexplicably held back for big "reveals") and held together by a rough idea of what a movie like this is supposed to look like. The movie assumes it is important because it tells an important, true story.

This happens with lots of Obviously Failed Oscarbait. When the year begins, Oscar experts look at upcoming movies and usually assemble a list of hopefuls, based entirely on source material or subject matter. But the best films — and, honestly, most Oscar-winning films — have to have more than that. They require a point of view and a reason for being beyond a desire to win awards. Maybe Black Mass had that at one time, but in the form that exists onscreen, it doesn't anymore.

Black Mass is playing in theaters around the country.

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