A large wave of award season contenders are finally starting to head over to UK cinemas and, although Black Mass may not be in contention for best picture, expect some nominations in the acting department as Johnny Depp puts himself back on the map as a serious actor.
Black Mass tells the true story of the alliance between the FBI and notorious gangster from South Boston, James ‘Whitey’ Bulger, which led to the subsequent rise of his organised crime group, the ‘Winter Hill Gang’ as the FBI sat back and allowed it to happen. It’s directed by Scott Cooper with a cast full of big names like Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dakota Johnson, Kevin Bacon and, of course, Johnny Depp in the lead role. Luckily, each one of these actors gives an excellent performance and it’s these performances that drive the film forward. The supporting cast are all fantastic but the two main stars are Joel Edgerton and Johnny Depp. It’s easy to overlook Edgerton’s performance due to the fact he has to be more subtle and doesn’t transform his face with make up like Depp does, but he does completely transform into his character. He adopts the role of the corrupt FBI agent perfectly and weaves his way in and out of dealings with delicacy.
“This film is dark, violent and uncompromising”
However, it’s Depp who provides the flashy, Oscar-worthy performance in this film as he completely transforms the way he speaks, looks and holds himself. Despite the standard trope of Depp wearing make up, it’s refreshing to see him play a serious role instead of a character who is cartoon-like or over the top. Depp’s take on Whitey Bulger is slimy, dirty, and excessively threatening; there is one particular scene towards the end of the movie that will want to make you take a shower as Bulger advances himself onto someone.
Generally, Black Mass as a narrative made me often feel disgusted and uncomfortable. This film is dark, violent and uncompromising. Worst of all, it’s all true. The very thought of an authoritative figure like the FBI making deals with gangsters isn’t the most pleasing concept, coupled with distressing performances and a haunting score, by Tom Holkenborg, it creates an unsettling tone overall. It’s not the type of film you’re going to rush to see over and over again: although it is a compelling story, the subject material doesn’t necessarily lend itself to have much longevity. It’s a film you should see but not a film that needs multiple viewings.
Whilst Black Mass is a very well made film with some outstanding performances, the story has some major issues. Although they are interesting, it’s hard to watch a movie with not a single likeable character. They may be enjoyable to watch but nothing ever really hooks you in. A similar example of this can be seen in Martin Scorsese’s classic gangster film Goodfellas; none of the characters are particularly likeable but the script, story and dialogue are so good that you’re along for the ride the whole way. The script for ‘Black Mass’ is by no means awful, it’s just not as electric or well-paced in comparison to Goodfellas. It’s not as unpredictable or exciting and thus you are nowhere near as invested into the characters as you should be, despite the great acting. The only character with any sort of moral code is introduced far too late into the film and is handled poorly.
There are also parts of Black Mass that feel very rushed. At a runtime of just over two hours, it really could have benefitted from an extra thirty to forty-five minutes in order to properly develop the story and characters more. This is best exemplified in the time jumps, in which six years will pass and Bulger has gone from a small-time criminal to organised crime lord of South Boston. There is a distinct lack of detail and development here; maybe the true story itself doesn’t have many interesting cinematic events in this time frame, but characters change over time. However, not a single character seems to have changed their agenda at all in six years.
Overall, Black Mass is a strongly directed film with some of the best acting I’ve seen all year and a tone which is uncompromisingly dark. It’s most likely going to pick up some award nominations in the acting department and it may gain a few nods for its score and cinematography, but don’t expect any Best Picture or Screenplay nominations. It doesn’t quite rank up to The Godfather or Goodfellas as a gangster film, but it’s certainly a film which deserves your attention.
Overall, Black Mass is a strongly directed film with some of the best acting I’ve seen all year and a tone which is uncompromisingly dark.