Verdict: Black Mass is a film for only reading the synopsis and passing on. There’s nothing new to find out by watching it.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with “Black Mass,” if this is the first crime/gangster movie you see. More likely, however, you have seen films like “Goodfellas,” “The Godfather,” “The Untouchables,” “The Usual Suspects” and so on. If you have, it’ll be pretty hard to find anything in “Black Mass” interesting. The reason is simple: “Black Mass” relies on the same cops and drug kingpins as its antecedents, but brings nothing new to the table (or the streets, in this case).
In the film, which is based on real events and persons, Johnny Depp plays James “Whitey” Bulger, a man who controlled the sale of drugs in Boston in the 1970s. His brother, Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch), is a senator. By having an ally in power, Bulger can to stay free from jail as long as he supplies the police with information about other drug organizations in town.
After reading the synopsis of a movie like this, the “so what?” question is inevitable. More specifically, what will be the factor that differentiates this film from the canonical crime movies that came before? The answer is disappointing: absolutely nothing.
Throughout the film, I believed I was being fed backgrounds information before the story could actually begin. We see Bulger’s relationship with his son when he teaches him how to be tough: it’s okay to hit someone, he explains to his 7-year-old, as long as nobody is looking. It’s odd to see the director, Scott Cooper, spending time on a speech that we have seen countless fathers deliver in movies. It’s cliché, tiresome and Cooper seems to make a big deal of it.
In the end, that’s what “Black Mass” is: trying to make a big deal of a story that has been told over and over again in the genre. Cooper tries to play with the structure of the narrative by telling the story in extended flashbacks, in almost a documentarian approach. In the first scene, for instance, Kevin (Jesse Plemons), a security guard at a nightclub, recalls how he met Bulger and got to be a part of his gang.
These flashbacks are nothing new (The Usual Suspects uses the same approach, more successfully), but they work as the shifts in time are done clearly and aren’t overused. Overall, the editing itself is good – maybe the only thing keeping this film at a C- grade. Scenes are placed well on screen, and the film moves well (differently than most recent blockbusters, which seem to have way more cuts than needed, just as if they were two-hour-trailers).
Depp’s acting, on the other hand, goes with the rest of the story: nothing surprising nor spectacular. Depp can be commended for being versatile. As an actor, he is able to do different genres of comedy, drama and action. However, the role of Bulger never quite fits him. A king of drugs should impose fear and respect not only by killing people, but also the way they behave in public: tough but calm and self-assured. Marlon Brando, for example, did it in The Godfather, creating an unforgettable character. Depp brings forth nothing that makes us fear him, nothing that makes his character here unforgettable in any way.
“Black Mass” is an odd film. It’s one of those movies where the synopsis doesn’t give much. It has such a standard plot line that prompts you to ask the question, “so what?” Great films blow our minds answering this exact question. When “Black Mass” ends, however, you still ask the same question and get nothing back, just a meaningless black screen.