Starring: Johnny Depp, Benedict Cumberbatch, Joel Edgerton
While his brother (Cumberbatch) rises the ranks to become a state senator, James ‘Whitey’ Bulger (Depp) lives a life of crime in South Boston. However, a less than ethical alliance with FBI agent and childhood associate John Connolly (Edgerton) allows him to become one of the most notorious gangsters in US history.
A true cinematic problem is how to make a film about unlikeable characters, but make them compelling and the film itself involving. Well, this is most certainly a huge problem facing the maker of any film that is about a true story involving some particularly unsavoury characters, particularly gangsters. Brain Helgeland’s Legend is a recent example of this, it was a well-made and acted film, but for all its stylistic polish should just have been a documentary, as that would have produced a narrative of the same level of actual emotional involvement.
Scott Cooper’s Black Mass certainly faces the same problems; it is based on a true story of unlikeable characters. Horrible characters can most certainly be deeply fascinating and almost likeable if written and acted well, as they can still also contain certain personality traits that makes them relatable or sympathetic, and they can of course contain deep internal conflicts. Well, I am essentially digressing as Black Mass is not that film, as it is basically all extremely competent surface and no substance; essentially it is very watchable but highly forgettable.
I personally am always a little sceptical towards any film that not only contains a cast list brimming full of famous names, but also has them plastered all over the marketing. It makes me question why they are doing this and if they are they trying to make up for something. Like it or not, if a character is played by a famous name we do have an extra level of engagement with them (even if this is solely on a subconscious level), and the fact that Black Mass features so many well-known faces in essentially very minor roles inevitably leads me to question the competence of the filmmakers.
Well, Black Mass, like Legend is a well-made and well-acted film based on a true story that is very much watchable, but this is something that can only produce a good film, but never a great film. It is almost impossible to criticise the aesthetics, or indeed the performances, but Black Mass ultimately lacks any true emotional involvement on any level, and so is in my opinion most definitely confined to the realms of ‘good film’, and never even threatens to be more than that. It is a good story that is well told and presented, but no more. Competence is not enough, a film has to have an angle or try to examine themes instead of just simply presenting a story in a formulaic narrative way.
The entire 122 minutes provides as much emotional involvement that a documentary on what happened would; the plethora of characters are all deeply unlikeable and forgettable. This is a waste as all the performances are excellent. However some of the performances do help with the emotional involvement for a few individual scenes, even if this is lacking in the competent but generic narrative presentation. I have no care for the make-up used on him, but Johnny Depp delivers a wonderfully intense and unhinged performance that has to be one of his best for a fair while. There is little examination as to why his character is the way he is, but Depp makes up for that with a deeply intense and charismatic performance. For me a true sense of unpredictability is what can make a film (or at least certain scenes) engaging, and Depp’s performance brings this to some scenes, in particular a scene he shares with Connolly’s wife (Julianne Nicholson).
However, scenes like these of genuine intrigue are very few and far between. Though the framed narrative that consists of Bulger’s former accomplices telling the story offers most of the exposition in an economic way, the whole film still fills bloated. There is a lot of focus on the FBI discovering the truth, but despite Joel Edgerton delivering an excellent performance, as we do not care for the characters involved, there is no real tension in these scenes. Likewise, though Cumberbatch’s Billy Bulger is James’ brother, he only has a few scenes and could have easily been completely cut from the story instead of feeling like another cynical addition the cast list of familiar names that will get even more bums on seats.
I of course have no idea what is fact and what is fiction in Black Mass, but that makes no difference as there is no denying that it is made and acted with the utmost competence, but beneath all the competent style there is no actual substance. It is undoubtedly watchable while on screen, but as it is essentially merely a competent telling of a true story, but without having any real angle or using this story to examine some interesting themes. It is therefore a highly forgettable waste of potential and some great performances.
Despite being a slick and very well made film, and also having an abundance of famous faces turn up and produce some great performances, Black Mass cannot escape the fact that beneath its very competent surface there is no substance whatsoever. It is your typical big budget biopic; watchable but highly forgettable.