Black Mass is a film about impressions, though none but Depp’s “Whitey” Bulger are particularly good. I’m not just talking about the overall poor quality of the Boston accents in this film, particularly Cumberbatch, who despite his best effort, is unable to conceal his identity as a Brit for more than a few words at a time. Black Mass as a whole is a sleepy, overly self-serious impression of a Scorsese-style gangster flick, with neither the style nor substance it needs to tell the bizarre and fantastic story of Bulger’s dealings with the FBI. Instead, the film is a insipid slog through the events of Bulger’s life, and seems completely disinterested in making anything other than a regurgitation of the same material covered in other, better gangster films.
Johnny Depp stars as fearsome gangster James “Whitey” Bulger, in a performance that stands out due to his singular ability to act and speak in a Boston accent at the same time. Depp’s Bulger is without a doubt the best part of the film. His quiet intensity and barely-concealed rage are captivating while he’s on screen, I only wish his character had better things to say. Above all else, the script is a glaringly obvious weak point. The huge emotional stakes of Black Mass are undercut by problematic dialogue, and characters become instantly unlikable due to their inability to explain clear motivations to the viewer. The worst offender of this being Joel Edgerton’s John Connolly, who completely lacks foresight or any clear understanding of the consequences of his actions.
I wish I could say the script was the only issue this film had, but really it’s just the first item on an increasingly disappointing laundry list of problems. Most of the acting was generally subpar, and while I would normally attribute this solely to the script, the fact Depp manages to unearth a good performance means that it’s not impossible for the characters to reach a level of mild likability, or even believability. Most did not rise to this challenge.
The cinematography was uninteresting, but fatally reminiscent of a Scorsese film, which does the film a disservice as it constantly reminds audiences they could, in fact, be watching a better movie instead. This may come off as overly pedantic, but two of the most irritating areas of Black Mass are the score and makeup. This marks one of the only times I’ve ever found the score of a film noticeably bad. As if this movie wasn’t dull enough already, what I can only assume was supposed to create a slow, tense build up only further fatigued me. In fact, one of the only interesting components of Black Mass is Depp’s overly made-up Bulger, whose pale blue eyes were hugely distracting, though maybe that was for the best.
Depp is genuinely good here, though it’s far from his best role or performance. Frankly, that’s more or less the extent of the good things I have to say about Black Mass. Almost nothing about this film is memorable, scenes of stylized violence feel more jarring than earned, although they do break up the overwhelming monotony of the film, so I suppose that’s a plus. This is a movie for true Depp fanatics only; if you want a good film about Bulger, stick with The Departed or a similarly-styled documentary. In short, Black Mass manages to burry a great story about one of the most ruthless gangsters in American history beneath layers of bland visuals and bad accents.
Rating: 1.5 out of 5