As the end of the year approaches, studios begin to release their best films in hopes of winning the industry’s most prestigious award, the Oscar. According to early reviews, Black Mass was poised to be one of the first films to kick off the Oscar season. After I saw this film, it left me counting down the days for the real season to start. Black Mass chronicles the story of notorious Boston gangster, Whitey Bulger, played by Johnny Depp (incredibly he was not the bad part of the film). The film was disappointing because it put more effort into protecting the integrity of the story than creating characters that progressed throughout the film.
Through the explanation of the film’s characters it can be understood why the film was so poor. The reason that the characters were so flimsy was because they were completely mindless. They did not have any internal conflicts, such as moral issues or moments of reflection, within themselves that would allow their actions in the film to have meaning. Each character either directly followed orders from other characters or just followed their pre-defined archetypes. For example, Benedict Cumberbatch’s character, William Bulger, portrayed the stereotypical crooked politician, who turned a blind eye to the atrocities his brother was committing. William stayed within the means of this archetype, and did not act outside of expectations, nor did he grow and change as a character. These characters were just not different from anything that has already been presented on film before. The thing that makes gangster films so extraordinary is that they make the audience question their own morals when determining whether or not the criminal committing the crimes on screen is morally justified or not. In Black Mass, there was no grey area to decipher, and it was crystal clear that the bad guys were bad and the good were good, because the film does not offer any insight into the motives behind the characters’ choices.
Another reason that the characters did not have any depth to them for the audience to analyze was because the story had few scenes devoted to character development. The whole second act of the film was a constant stream of Bulger listening to sob stories of why he should spare their life, and then Bulger’s response, which was always ruthlessly killing them. When this is seen the first time in the film, some character development occurs because the audience understands that Bulger is heartless. This is apparent because he does not let emotions overcome his rational thinking when he is deciding someone’s fate. But by the fifth time this occurs within less than an hour, the audience realizes that Bulger does not use any logical thinking, and is just insane. In the beginning, the film attempts to set up Bulger’s character by showing the traditional father-son relationship he has with his son. Yet, after the son dies from an illness, the story abandons all hope of humanizing Bulger, and all the remaining scenes are just throwaway action scenes. This leads the audience to ask, “Why do filmmakers choose to abandon developing Bulger’s character?” Clearly, it was understood that Bulger would need character development, since the film started off with strong scenes characterizing him. Nevertheless, after the first act was over, Bulger’s character development was abandoned. This is because the filmmakers tried to keep the story too close to real life events,l and were afraid to create situations that were not based in reality. While there is an audience that prefers when stories stick to their source material, this decision definitely hurt Black Mass in this case.
In conclusion, Black Mass was not redeeming in any way. The lack of story failed to set up its characters. The meaningless characters limited any kind of analysis and connection for the audience, leaving them with absolutely nothing to take away from the film and disregarding the two hours they lost. The film would have greatly benefitted from the writers moving away from the source material, and using their creativity to devise situations for the transformation of the characters. I hope in the future that Bulger’s story is recreated on screen again, because a lot of the really important parts in his life were glazed over. For instance, the prison-administered LSD tests that were performed on him were vaguely mentioned, and featuring them would have added to his character significantly. Unfortunately, while Johnny Depp gave one of his best performances in years, the problems present in Black Mass are too much to handle, earning it 1 out of 5 Reels from Celluloid Cinema.
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