“Black Mass” director Scott Cooper and screenwriter Mark Mallouk have tried to bring together all of the character and plot traits that American audiences have come to love and expect from their gangster films: a charismatic, yet psychotic gang-lord, a plot thick with tension between said gang-lord and the federal law and emotional relationships that attempt to humanize the main characters.
“Black Mass” tries to do all of this, and it fails. Cooper’s retelling of the rise and fall of one of America’s most violent and ruthless criminals seemed promising in its theatrical trailers, which were undoubtedly chilling and fantastic. However, in all its theatrical feature-length glory, “Black Mass” isn’t half as good as the two-minute teasers released beforehand.
Starring Johnny Depp as the vulgar and violent James “Whitey” Bulger, “Black Mass” recounts the way in which Bulger terrifies his way to the top tiers of Boston’s gang hierarchy, while simultaneously acting as an informant to the FBI in order to remove his competition.
Sounds like a good plot, right? Wrong. “Black Mass” suffers from the same syndrome that ail many Hollywood films: its star-studded cast takes away from the audience’s suspension of disbelief. Watching the film, I didn’t get the feeling that I was immersed in the story of “Whitey” Bulger. I felt more like I was just watching Johnny Depp with too much makeup on, Joel Edgerton being the obligatory crooked cop, and Benedict Cumberbatch bumbling through what may have been the most laughable Boston accent in recent film history. And I should mention that everyone’s Bacon Number just decreased all the way to one, because the prolific Kevin Bacon was thrown in there for good measure, as well.
“Black Mass” is also barely interesting to look at, unless you like looking at a crusty Johnny Depp and Benedict Cumberbatch doing his worst John Kennedy impression. Stylistically uninspired and formally unimaginative, the cinematography in “Black Mass” leaves something to be desired.
Further, the characterization of “Black Mass”’s main character, “Whitey” Bulger, was a bit off-mark and poorly cobbled together. After a couple weak attempts to humanize Bulger near the beginning of the film as a family man who cares about his elderly mother and impressionable son, Bulger’s plotline veers off course and over a proverbial cliff as the film seemingly gives up completely and randomly on trying to characterize Bulger on any human level, electing instead to hamfistedly shove the character’s craziness down the audience’s throat with excessive violence and vulgarity.
For the majority of the movie, little of Bulger’s intimidation, violence or wit serves much of a purpose toward the plot. Instead, Cooper seems to put all of his efforts toward superficially characterizing Bulger as a cool and composed homicidal maniac, instead of tying Bulger’s actions and disposition into his weak plot. At first, this tactic was effective at creating tension and suspense. However, about halfway through the movie, Bulger’s seemingly unrelated actions and encounters came across less like necessary characterization and plot development and more like the filmmakers’ attempts at distracting the audience from the nosediving storyline with titillating gore and tension.
Evocative of early gangster films in which criminals ran around and did random acts of crime and evil for no apparent reason, “Black Mass” didn’t live up to the hype it created for itself. If you want a good gangster experience, save yourself the time, money and disappointment and just watch stick with “Goodfellas.”