BLACK MASS Review

black mass

Director: Scott Cooper

Genre: Gangster Film

Release: 2015

The fall season has rolled in with at a brisk clip, and viewers should be hotly anticipating the inevitable highlights of the year. Unfortunately, BLACK MASS is no such film. Trite, tired and blatantly reliant on the stereotypes that inform its Irish leads, BLACK MASS is a character vehicle for Johnny Depp that proves his acting capability, but keeps him just shy of Oscar gold due to a script that limits his impressive outward appearance to a one-dimensional killing machine with little-to-no captivating character traits.

What BLACK MASS does manage to accomplish is presenting crime as ugly, straying heavily from the glamorized nature of most gangster films. The mob mentalities established by Scorsese in GOODFELLAS are undeniably apparent, but what separates BLACK MASS from its peers is how willfully it paints everyone in a thick black coat, leaving little room for characters to garner empathy from the audience. Naturally, this isn’t necessarily a bad decision, since romanticizing a gangster is far worse than making him despicable, but BLACK MASS stays so true to its convictions that everyone from Depp to Edgerton comes across as an abhorrent archetype.

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Subtle and understated

Depp plays someone who’s so diabolically evil that there’s no redeeming traits to his personality. The first act tries to compensate for this through three evident save-the-cat moments, none of which actually manage to succeed in changing the audience’s opinion of him since by the start of the second act, Depp has irreversibly turned into a strictly criminal killing machine. Whilst some might consider this to be daring filmmaking, it ultimately results in one-dimensional character writing. In addition, the film seems to be unaware of just how much the audience already dislikes Depp, throwing in a scene in which he calmly assaults a woman for good measure, adding nothing to the narrative.

Where the film’s plot gains traction is with its inclusion of the FBI, making for a strong critique of how government aide resulted in the creation of one of the most ruthless gangsters in modern American history. Joel Edgerton heavily factors into this portion of the film, and since he is the only one who tows the fine line between gangster and lawman, he ultimately makes for the most exciting character. Unfortunately, he is wasted once it becomes frustratingly apparent that he has no actors to work off of in the office space. Adam Scott, despite his ability to consistently surprise as a captivating actor, is entirely sidelined, and Corey Stoll serves no purpose other than to propel the film’s third act. In addition, Julianne Nicholson is a completely wasted opportunity in Edgerton’s character arc, and Dakota Johnson, despite putting on a fantastic performance, is thrown out of the narrative completely by the end of the first act.

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She would go on to find herself associating with equally questionable individuals

The fact that an entire paragraph can be written on the failure of prosthetic makeup is already a bad sign, because not only does Depp go through a radical appearance change, but so do his cohorts Jesse Plemons and Benedict Cumberbatch, the latter of which has officially put on the worst performance of his career, awkwardly stumbling as he attempts to not only play an Irish man from Boston, but somehow convince the audience that he’s related to Johnny Depp. Furthermore, the entire Irish community is played out as a set of bumbling stereotypes, heavily relying on the makeup department to make them as ugly as possible so that the audience remembers that they’re the bad guys. In fact, BLACK MASS is a perfect example of a film that will receive recognition purely based on Depp’s appearance change rather than his dramatic merit, much like THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON or THE IRON LADY.

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Depp’s makeup in THE IRON LADY was objectively more impressive

The most irritating factor of this 2015 piece of Oscar bait is its writing. Visually, it’s quite pleasant, and attempts to emulate its genre peers through carefully framed, slow-paced cinematography. However, although it’s composed elegantly, BLACK MASS is consistently lacking in dynamic camerawork, and its use of voice overs feel garish, tacky and undeniably juvenile, causing much of the film to play out like a group of kids that really loved GOODFELLAS putting their own spin on it without understanding what made the original film so great. BLACK MASS is constructed to function, but that’s where it comes to a stop, because apart from being mildly captivating gangster cinema, it falls frustratingly short on delivering characters that are multi-dimensional.

Verdict: Do Not Recommend

Sergio Zaciu

"When I make love, I realize eating steak was the preferable alternative." Sergio is the Crossfader Film Editor and a film connoisseur from Romania. He pretends to understand culinary culture enough to call himself an LA foodie, but he just can't manage to like scallops.

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