This is the second of three posts on the art of film. My last post dealt (partially) with what The Martian did well, and this week deals with what Black Mass messed up.
Scott Cooper’s Black Mass is, of course, the most recent film starring Johnny Depp. It chronicles the rise and fall of Irish gangster Jimmy “Whitey” Bulger—played by Depp—as he gains control of the Boston underworld through his connections with his politician brother William Bulger (Benedict Cumberbatch) and childhood friend John Connolly (Joel Edgerton). There’s also some FBI intrigue and family drama thrown in there for good measure.
Before we get started, I must confess that the title is misleading. “Bad movie” is a little harsh. Like my last post, the move is generally good (The Martian far more than this one) but has some certain flaws that are worth exploring. In the case of Black Mass, I think these flaws are fairly substantial and are common in a lot of otherwise good movies.
First, what the movie does right:
Depp is believable. For anyone else, this wouldn’t be much of a feat, but for Depp, it is a big deal. He doesn’t wear black, he isn’t profoundly strangle, and he isn’t continuously drunk. He plays a real human with a degree of subtlety and the talent we all know that he has.
In addition to Bulger, Edgerton’s John Connolly is an interesting character, and arguably the main attention of the film. We watch his greed and ability to manipulate take him to the top. Despite their twisted morality, the audience cannot look away from these undeniably interesting characters.
Also worth noting are some of the side characters in the film that are particularly well acted and have some of the most fascinating arcs in the movie. These include Peter Sarsgaard’s druggie hitman and Juno Temple as a young prostitute.
Now, with these virtues laid out there, let’s turn to the vices:
Black Mass has too many characters. Granted, a lot of these characters are interesting as mentioned above, but the film tries to split its time among these interesting characters. In so doing, time is taken away from Bulger and Connolly and not enough time is devoted to these textured side characters. This is especially the case with women in the film. We are introduced to a handful of female characters that have strong potential that is never utilized.
Next is the movie’s ability to think creatively. Black Mass strives for gangster epic, a rise-and-fall biopic, but never achieves. It pulls too many tricks from Scorsese (think specifically of the music) and Coppola. It’s filled with clichés of the genre: FBI disputes with men in suites yelling and hitting their desks, guys getting whacked when they think they’re about to whack someone else, grizzly gangsters helping old ladies across the street. There’s a lot of familiarity to this flick.
And while we’re talking about yelling FBI agents, something that isn’t really a vice but is worth mentioning is that acting is the least important aspect to consider when judging a movie. There are a number of reasons for this (one being that acting styles change over the years), but the one most relevant is something Lauren and I were discussing the other day: everyone in Hollywood can act. Yeah, I get that there are exceptions, but for the most part they’re all doing a good job. Which means that I shouldn’t and you shouldn’t (unless you’re trained in some regard) be affirming the acting in a movie. Because, when we do so, we tend to praise the actors that yell a lot or cry a lot or do something weird like wear prosthetics. We latch on to superficial things, to texture, and say “Now, that’s good acting!” So stop saying it; chances are they were just given a scene where they got to scream.
With those vices acknowledged, let’s consider GoodFellas (I know I used Scorsese’s classic in the last post, but it works even better here). Black Mass is attempting to do something pretty similar to GoodFellas, which makes the movies perfect for comparing. In addition to some of Scorsese’s breathtaking aesthetics and camera movement, GoodFellas knows characters. We keep coming back to characters—but there’s a reason for that; story and arcs are important, but the most important thing is developing empathy with the audience. We’re on edge when Pesci is on edge, we’re anxious when Liotta is anxious, we’re drunk on power with the lot of them.
Again, Black Mass is a good movie. But it’s competing an arena with some of the best. and when you do that, you have to bring your best to the table, to give your characters enough time to develop, to do something novel. And that is what the movie could not do.