Movie Review – Black Mass
Director : Scott Cooper
Year Of Release : 2015
Principal Cast : Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Rory Cochrane, Kevin Bacon, Jesse Plemons, Peter Sarsgaard, Dakota Johnson, Corey Stoll, David Harbour, Julianne Nicholson, Adam Scott, Brad Carter, W Earl Brown, Juno Temple, Erica McDermott, Bill Camp, Scott Anderson.
Approx Running Time : 122 Minutes
Synopsis: The true story of Whitey Bulger, the brother of a state senator and the most infamous violent criminal in the history of South Boston, who became an FBI informant to take down a Mafia family invading his turf.
It’s fair to say that some of Johnny Depp’s best films have been ones in which he plays the criminality card – Blow, Public Enemies, and now Black Mass, represent the real Depp as an actor of immense talent who, unfortunately, has spent more time of late chasing the Disney dollar than building a truly solid legacy. It must be said, though, that Depp isn’t really the star of this film, in the sense that he is the prime character we follow. No, Black Mass spends a large percentage of its time following Joel Edgerton’s FBI agent as well, while the superb supporting cast provide flesh on the bones for one of the year’s best crime flicks. Urban, real, a mix of The Departed, The Town and a hint of Goodfellas, Black Mass is a ripping yarn of Bostonian loyalty and betrayal, a true highlight in a recent spate of otherwise tepid Depp flicks.
Depp plays infamous Boston racketeer Jimmy “Whitey” Bulger, who runs organised crime through South Boston. At war with the Italian Mafia from the North side, Bulger becomes an informant for the FBI in order to gain protection so long as he keeps providing childhood friend and FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) with material to bargain with. Connolly, whose loyalty to Bulger runs deep, initially uses the association to further his own career, much to his wife’s concern (Julianne Nicholson). Bulger’s young son dies, his elderly mother passes away, which sends the criminal into a tailspin of power and corruption; which places pressure on Connelly to “handle” him. As Connelly sinks further into protecting Bulger at the cost of other informants and more and more brutal street-crime, the District Attorney and the FBI begin to close in, pulling down the city’s highest profile crime boss.
Directed with a calm sense of tragedy, almost Wagnerian in dramatic implacable trajectory, Black Mass plays out the true-life crime story of Whitey Bulger, set against Boston of the 70’s and 80’s. It’s a fumigant story of loyalty and betrayal, of deception and double-cross, a perfect recipie for human wreckage to be splattered across the screen as Bulger’s criminality and ferocious manipulation of Connolly takes its toll. Based on the book “Black Mass: The True Story of An Unholy Alliance Between The FBI and the Irish Mob,” by Deck Lehr and Gerard O’Neill, and from a screenplay by Jez Butterworth and Mark Mallouk, director Scott Cooper’s tense, nail-clenching tale of murder and power scales the heights of Boston’s underworld, a bloody fable of morality and corruption against a soft-focussed nostalgia for a more innocent time.
True-crime usually makes a more compelling story than outright fiction, and there’s no greater story the American public want to see than a gangster brought low by informants and, in the end, greed. Although Bulger eluded capture for some 16 years following the 1995 takedown of Connelly and the rest of Bulger’s men, known as the Winter Hill Gang, eventually the law caught up with him. Black Mass deals specifically with the story of Bulger’s gang war with a rival Mafia organisation, and how he uses Connelly, a former friend now working for the FBI, to achieve protection. Bulger is a wiley old coot, as they say in the classics, and Depp’s performance, although affected by an at-times laughable head prosthetic to make him look more like the man in question, is decisive. Depp plays menace better than few others of his generation; a little like Joe Pesci in Goodfellas, one minute he’s laughing and the next, he’s putting a bullet between your eyes. It’s a schizophrenic character like this which makes it suited Depp’s extraordinary ability to morph into a role, and his essaying of Bulger is filled with subtlety.
Opposite him, but by no means taking a step back, is Aussie actor Joel Edgerton, who, as Connelly, does well with a garble-tongue Bostonian accent and mixed loyalties. Initially a straight-shooter, Connelly soon drifts into the grey area between law enforcement and protecting those he thinks of as partners in business. Edgerton’s role is, to my mind anyway, larger and more complex than Depp’s, given Connelly had far more to lose in the film than Bulger ever does other than a grip on power – Connolly had a family, he had friends inside the Bureau, he had a career. And he flushed it all away thanks to a misaligned sense of duty to Bulger, who would shoot him as soon as look at him. Edgerton commands his scenes with a tenacity seasoned actors often struggle with. He imbues Connelly with a sense of misguidedness, before succumbing to fear and passive-aggressive psychological warfare.
Adding depth to the film are roles to Kevin Bacon, as Connolly’s boss, Charles McGuire, Benedict Cumberbatch, as Whitey’s brother, a Massachusetts Senator (yeah, I know!), Jesse Plemons (The Program) as one of Bulger’s henchmen, Dakota Johnson as the mother of Whitey’s late son, and Peter Sarsgaard, as a one-time Bulger associate in Brian Halloran. Other familiar faces are smattered through the film – Juno Temple plays a young hooker step-daughter of Bulger’s lieutenant, Stephen Flemmi (Rory Cochrane), David Harbour as Connolly’s partner in the FBI, John Morris, and Adam Scott pops in as another FBI agent working the case. Nobody really steps wrong here, with Sarsgaard in particular delivering a short-lived performance out of the box compared to many of his other roles.
Black Mass depicts Whitey Bulger as a psychotic sociopath, with a wrenching anger issue when it came to ratting on the law and betrayal by his own people, and Depp issues a restrained, bucolic portrayal of the man – whether this is accurate I guess we’ll never really know, and it should be noted that “uglying” Depp up for the role greatly reduces the sex appeal the film might otherwise have had, but Scott Cooper’s direction of Depp is mature and the film gels thanks to the actors’ ability to withdraw into the character, rather than turn him into yet another caricature. Cooper’s timing, visual style and ability to draw tension and horror out of the most benign and terrifying scenarios with equal strength is telling. The film’s assured framing and metronomic editing give the story a sense of inevitability: you can see the train of doom coming down the track a long way off, it’s just a matter of who gets out the way before it ploughs through everyone. There’s no histrionics or mellifluous direction here, this isn’t a showboat film, but a nuanced character-driven piece that establishes the players early and then sets them on a collision course of guns and death.
Black Mass is a terrific film, crime or otherwise. Led by Depp and Edgerton, both hitting career highs here, and directed with a remarkable precision by Scott Cooper, this stands alongside modern classics such as The Departed, Eastern Promises and American Gangster as one of the best genre films of the last two decades. While it’s a bit of a downer to see Boston’s crime history come to the big screen yet again (The Town being the other most recent one I can think of), Black Mass is solid, commanding storytelling that’s as much about the people within it as it is about what they do. Compelling, gripping stuff.
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