The central problem with Black Mass isn’t that it is merely a poor man’s attempt at a Scorsese-style crime epic, telling the story of notorious criminal James “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp), but the fact it frequently comes across as a poor imitation of Scorsese’s own imitators. The Boston setting and the wobbly accents of many of the actors (I’m looking at you, Cumberbatch) recalls American Hustle, with a nightclub scene soundtracked by “Don’t Leave Me This Way” practically identical to one in director David O. Russell’s 2013 film. American Hustle naturally suffered due to being released at the same time as The Wolf of Wall Street, a film that proved Scorsese is still an energetic and entertaining filmmaker with a punk rock spirit even as a 70 year old industry legend making a $100 million-budgeted blockbuster.
But American Hustle, as clear as its Scorsese mimicry was, remains a distinctive David O. Russell film, with his trademark screwball comedy pacing still present even when super-imposed onto a less-interesting crime narrative. Black Mass director Scott Cooper has no distinctive style of his own, making his Scorsese-Plagiarising feel even more apparent; he has made a crime film distinctive of another director, whilst forgetting the key ingredients that make that man’s films so special and widely beloved.
There are two key areas where he clearly falls far short of the mark. Firstly, the pacing; even in Scorsese’s crime epics, which run up to three hours long apiece, they still have the energetic rush of a movie of half the running time, leaving you not realising how much time has flown since you sat down to begin watching. Black Mass is a slow burner, albeit one that never sets alight. There are moments where it threatens to become interesting, such as Bulger launching into a tirade about a secret chicken recipe; but even that is clearly a poor man’s imitation of Joe Pesci’s terrifying “funny how?” sequence in Goodfellas. Even as it apes Scorsese, Black Mass never appears to be anything other than indistinctive.
The other way Black Mass is clearly unsuccessful is in its screenplay. The screenplay, co-written by English playwright Jez Butterworth (who is responsible for the massively entertaining Edge of Tomorrow, as well as the criminally underrated Spectre) and debutant writer Mark Mallouk frequently tries to ape the fast-paced, foul-mouthed dialogue delivery in Scorsese’s films. The Wolf of Wall Street, for example, holds the record for having more uses of “fuck” than any other American film, with 569 F-bombs and counting; Casino, Goodfellas and The Departed equally rank highly on this list. When you are watching these movies, however, you don’t notice the frequency of the foul-mouthed language because of how outrageously funny and dramatically engaging they all are.
The only lesson the Black Mass screenwriters seem to have learnt from watching these movies is that characters in Scorsese’s films fuckin’ swear all the fuckin’ time, making the dialogue delivery seem awkward, to the extent it seems like they intended for the mere use of such language to act as the joke in itself, not building anything humorous or dramatically engaging around the repeated use of the word. If you don’t notice the foul-mouthed dialogue in Scorsese films despite its frequency, you sure as fuckin’ hell notice it here due to how uninteresting the dialogue is when taking as a whole.
This isn’t the only way the screenplay is terrible. The segments in Whitey Bulger’s life are being told to the audience as confessionals from his previous associates, who are revealing their knowledge of him to the FBI. The reason this doesn’t work is because the people confessing are seldom present for any of the stories they are telling the feds about; you could argue this is an example of the “unreliable narrator” trope, but the bland execution of it makes apparent it is nothing more than poor screenwriting. When working with such bland material, the performances never really come to life.
The film has been touted as a comeback vehicle for Johnny Depp, yet like so many of his post-Jack Sparrow performances, the performance merely amounts to wearing a funny costume and doing a silly accent that doesn’t quite work. Within this all-star cast, the only actor who rises to the material is Joel Edgerton, whose character has a far more dramatically satisfying arc than the main focus of the story; he becomes the only reason to keep watching even as the film delves deeper into generic gangster tedium.
Black Mass is one of the most bland and generic gangster films ever made. As the film ends, with its written synopsis of what happened to every character following the conclusion of the screen narrative, you are left wishing you had spent your time wisely by staying at home and reading the Wikipedia entry instead.