Last year, the awards season ran long. Way too long. It seems like everything was crunched up around Christmastime, with so many films competing for attention that they crowded each other out. Some contenders (Selma, for example) didn’t even get a wide release until the year was already over, and one film (namely A Most Violent Year) tried to sneak in at the last minute with a release date of December 31st. A lot of great movies shot themselves in the foot because they weren’t released early enough to build up any kind of buzz, and too many great candidates were shut out as a direct result.
But this year, on December 18th, we’ve got a little movie coming out called Star Wars: The Force Awakens. And understandably, no one wants to release their groomed Oscar prizefighter while the revived Star Wars franchise is dominating the pop culture landscape and raking in a billion dollars. So far, it seems like the only ones foolish enough to try are Quentin Tarantino, David O. Russell, and last year’s big winner, Alejandro Inarritu. All three of whom are previous Oscar nominees with histories of ambiguous sanity.
The point is that Oscar season has to start early this year. Which means that the awards contenders (Everest, Pawn Sacrifice, Sicario, et al.) have to be pushed forward in such a way that they overlap with the mediocre dreck that we normally see this time of year (Un Gallo con Muchos Huevos, The Intern, The Perfect Guy, and so on). It’s made for a very odd time in multiplexes right now.
So let’s start with Black Mass, a biopic about the rise and fall of James “Whitey” Bulger (here immortalized by Johnny Depp), who primarily came to power with the complicit help of the FBI. See, Bulger grew up in South Boston alongside John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) who’s now an FBI hotshot tasked with bringing down the local mob. They make an arrangement: Bulger acts as an informant, telling Connolly whatever he needs to know to take out Bulger’s competition. In return, Connolly makes sure that Bulger can do whatever he pleases, unimpeded by the Feds.
Naturally, this leads to Bulger going from a small-time crook to a bona fide kingpin. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
In the movie, this boneheaded scheme goes even worse than you’d expect. Though Bulger’s help does eventually lead to the arrest of the Boston Mafia, that’s only after years and years of giving the FBI jack shit. Bulger only gives just enough information to keep the feds off his back, and we see for ourselves that Connolly is helping things along by falsifying reports and passing them off as intel from his source.
From street crooks to the Bureau, absolutely everybody knows that Jimmy Bulger is a criminal psychopath. Yet Connolly is absolutely dead-set on keeping Bulger off the radar and denying or burying the hundreds of testimonials about Bulger’s growing criminal enterprise. Why? Well, Connolly justifies it by stating that Bulger helped get the Italian mob out of Boston. Connolly is also very fond of talking about his shared upbringing with Bulger, talking about the innate and unbreakable loyalty that comes with growing up on the mean streets of Southie. The former argument falls apart with the knowledge that Bulger filled the power vacuum and went on to commit even worse crimes than the Mafia. The latter argument never fails to make Connolly look like a brain-dead sap.
As for Bulger himself, I’m sorry to say that he doesn’t get much in the way of development either. He’s easily the best part of the movie, since the character is so unpredictable that we can never tell when he’s smiling to someone’s face only to shoot someone in the head.
That said, the film tries to tell us that Bulger truly went off the deep end after losing his son, his wife, and his mother, but I’m not buying it. Though I’m willing to believe that two family deaths and a divorce were all huge deals to him, we can clearly see from the outset that he was always a homicidal maniac. If there’s any development into an even more bloodthirsty and paranoid lunatic, it’s not enough to power an entire narrative.
The plotlines, themes, and character arcs in this film all feel undercooked. None of the storylines are developed into anything compelling, in large part because the stakes are so ill-defined. We see a lot of people get killed, and there’s a lot of money trading hands, but it’s hard to care because the consequences for these actions are barely touched on. We only ever hear a lot of talk about Bulger’s rise to criminal power, but that’s not enough to sufficiently convey the scope of his operation, what it would take to bring that operation down, and what it would really mean for Boston if it did go down.
Everything about this movie gives the impression that it was a five-hour film cut to ribbons and compressed into two hours. In fact, that may well be precisely what happened. It’s been confirmed that Sienna Miller’s part was cut from this movie entirely, and God only knows what else hit the cutting room floor. But at least Miller was lucky enough to get cut from the film altogether — Kevin Bacon, Corey Stoll, Peter Sarsgaard, Dakota Johnson, Juno Temple, and several other actors appear in totally thankless roles, and each only just long enough to pick up a paycheck. It was clearly a ploy to pad out the marquee and make sure the film could boast as many stars as possible. It’s a very common trick with awards-bait pictures, which brings me to my single biggest note about this film.
This movie is awards-bait cinema in all the worst ways. The actors are all pouring their hearts out for the camera, trying their absolute hardest to recite every line with cataclysmic importance. It’s like every single scene was meant to be played right after someone says “And the nominees are…” What makes it even worse is that every other shot is either a close-up or an extreme close-up. At any given time, an actor’s face is literally taking up the entire screen. Which makes it so much harder to ignore the faulty age makeup or the laughably bad Boston accents.
(Side note: Out of respect for Benedict Cumberbatch, I’m not even going to comment on his attempt at an accent here.)
Basically put, the filmmakers spend every second of screen time calling attention to themselves. Everything in this movie is presented with a bloated sense of unearned self-importance, which leaves the entire film feeling empty. Even worse, the film calls attention to its actors in such a way that it’s impossible to suspend disbelief. I saw a whole ton of actors performing for a camera, but I never once saw anything resembling a character. Needless to say, that was another huge reason why I couldn’t emotionally invest with a single person onscreen, and by extension the movie as a whole.
Black Mass isn’t really a movie so much as it’s a showcase. It’s a demo reel for Academy voters so the filmmakers and actors can show off their skills. Of course, being transparent awards bait doesn’t automatically make for a bad film. Quite the contrary, the film looks meticulously crafted and the actors are all charismatic enough to keep a weak script watchable. But the story itself was clearly such a low priority, with plot and characters all given only the bare minimum of development, that it falls far short of being a good movie.
There are so many awards contenders coming out between now and 2016 that I don’t think this one has a chance. Hell, I doubt anyone will even remember this film exists after The Martian hits next week. But on the off chance that I’m wrong and this film actually succeeds in getting some awards buzz, go ahead and give it a watch. Until then, I wouldn’t bother.