Exclusive: Black Mass (2015) Review

Johnny Depp gives a great performance in an above average film


 On October 20th this year, Odeon Cinemas did their seventh “Screen Unseen”; a one-off special viewing of a film, a month or so prior to its public UK release. The film remains publicly unidentified until the film starts.
This month’s mystery film was Scott Cooper’s gangster biopic, Black Mass.
This is a pretty exclusive review, as it isn’t out in the UK for a month.

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You came here to find out if Black Mass was good, my answer is yes, though at times it can be a bit slow moving.
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South Boston in the 1970s and 80s, a place where “car keys” were pronounced the same as “khakis”, where smart people weren’t just smart, they were “smaaht” and in a time when a fearsome Irish-American mobster and FBI informant named James “Whitey” Bulger, who personally beat, strangled and shot anyone who posed even the vaguest threat to his far-reaching criminal operations. He was a kingpin, whose felonious activities were wilfully ignored by the FBI in exchange for information on the Italian Mafia.
They paid in blood in an attempt crush the Mafia and other gangs to little success, all at the rose-tinted behest of Bulger’s childhood friend, FBI Agent John Connelly, the ostensible lead of the film, played by Joel Edgerton (Exodus, The Great Gatsby). Connelly is one of the only characters with an actual story arc and his shaky “alliance” (which he refers to numerous times) with Bulger is all that really sets Black Mass apart from other gangster films.

I chose “Ostensible” because, whether or not Edgerton is the lead, it’s Johnny Depp as real-life mobster Whitey Bulger who is the real star of the show. He leads an all-star cast, which features everyone who wasn’t in The Departed or The Town. Why those films? Because, like this one, they’re set in Boston. So you know what that means? Bawstin ak-sints everywhere. It’s the most Bostonian film I have ever seen or heard.
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Dakota Johnson (from Fifty Shades of Grey) plays Bulger’s wife, and Benedict Cumberbatch (from that one where he plays a clever guy) is his brother Billy. Kevin Bacon (from the EE adverts) and Jesse Plemons (“Meth Damon” from Breaking Bad) also star.
They all do a fine job, but they are hugely eclipsed by Depp as Bulger, who plays the character with such conviction and menace that sometimes you forget that it’s Captain Jack Sparrow or Willy Wonka beneath that leather jacket and behind that gun. The problem there is that in consciously thinking, “That can’t be Johnny Depp”, I’m still subconsciously thinking about Johnny Depp.
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The performance is immeasurably supported by the physical transformation. When you think Johnny Depp, I’d wager that you don’t think of him as blonde and balding with discoloured teeth and inhumanly pale blue eyes and yet, in Black Mass, he is all of those things and more.
At times, he’s vampiric, seeming like a gun-toting, leather-clad New England Nosferatu. Other times, when he’s not baring his fangs and shooting people in the head, he looms in the background, on the edge of darkness, skull-like, almost like a summoned spectre or like Satan in human form, manipulating everyone around him to satisfy his own desires.

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In fact, I feel I may be close with the Satan thing because the film is called “Black Mass”. It’s also possible that it is called that because it was a dark time in Boston, Massachusetts.

Johnny Depp as Whitey Bulger is sometimes truly terrifying, he is so convincingly menacing and believably threatening, at times the tension he creates is so thick, you could cut it with a knife, and I doubt that he would have any qualms about doing so.

Depp has carved a niche playing quirky (much as I’m loathed to use that word) creative types in humorous or light-hearted films and because of this, we forget that he’s actually a very good actor. Hopefully Black Mass will make that fact stick in people’s minds, I’d love to see him in some darker, more serious roles, he would have been my first choice for Choi Min-Sik’s character in the US remake of Oldboy.

I feel that without Depp’s Oscar-worthy performance, this would be a relatively generic and bland gangster story, in kind of the same way that Michael Shannon really brought Richard Kuklinski in The Iceman to life.
Black Mass isn’t a hugely imaginative film, and it’s not unfamiliar territory and it seems that little has been done to really make this story ‘pop’. It was like The Iceman turned up to 8, or a dialled down American Hustle. Nothing that Scorsese or DePalma didn’t do better 20-30 years ago.

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What’s Bulger [actually] done?” says FBI Agent Connelly dismissively.
What’s he done…?” responds the strait-laced, zero-bullshit U.S Prosecution Attorney Fred Wyshak (played by House of Card’s and Ant Man’s Corey Stoll), stupefied by this apparently wilful ignorance.
…Everything!”, Wyshak concludes.

This short exchange, for me, best encapsulates the themes and characters of the film. It’s so telling of the institutional corruption of the FBI at this time, as well as the angle of the film, which is really about Connelly’s relationship with Bulger and not the details of his crimes. This is an important point, because the film spends almost no time focusing on Bulger’s specific criminal operations. Sure, he kills everyone throughout the film, but why is he killing them? To protect his illegal business, which is alluded to but almost never shown. James Bulger was charged with 19 counts of murder, as well as numerous counts of extortion, racketeering, narcotics distribution and money laundering, yet we’re only really shown the murdering. It’s like the film doesn’t really try to make us sympathise at all with Bulger, though maybe that was the point. As I mentioned in my Straight Outta Compton review, films do tend to romanticise or make Legends of white gangsters and thugs. This is something Black Mass steers clear of and in doing so, shows us a kingpin who is unashamedly what he is, like Louis Bloom in Nightcrawler or Rust Cohle in True Detective, he is incurably himself and no one is going to change that.

Depp overshadows everyone else so hard in this film that it’s easy to forget there are other characters that are inconsistently important to the story.
For example, he has a wife and a son who are representative (I guess) of a link to humanity and caring, then his son dies and we never see the wife again, nor is she spoken about. Kevin Weeks, the thuggish enforcer who goes on record to tell the police everything about Bulger (this serves as the frame for the story) is introduced as a primary character but is very quickly relegated to the background, barely seen or heard from again.

The film is reasonably paced, well acted and well costumed. The issue is with the framing device, the retrospective telling of the Bulger story from the perspective of his old associates. It doesn’t work on all the levels it should, everyone just says their bit and then a scene showing what the character just explained follows it. This doesn’t create tension. The story itself doesn’t feature as much tension as it should and the only tension that exists exudes from Whitey Bulger’s one-on-one interactions with the people he’s threatening.

Connelly’s story really should be the interesting one in this film; here we have story of an FBI agent who believes he’s doing his job well and doing right by an old friend, when really he is (wilfully?) ignorant to the fact that his alliance (there’s that word again) with Whitey makes him an accessory to murder among other heinous crimes. Instead, the film doesn’t fully commit to that story and spends rather too much time with Whitey, which is fine, but his tale is hardly laced with compromise, he does what he wants without opposition, he even states this in the film. The compromising of an FBI agent is a far more interesting story.
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It’s not a bad film, it’s just not the great one it should be. It has some really great moments and some solid ideas, most notably the idea that gangsters aren’t born that way, they are made, moulded by their environments, symptoms of high level corruption, low level poverty and the false belief that the American dream works for everyone.


 

Any thoughts or feelings? Leave them in the comments below

Runtime: 122 Mins
Genre: Crime/Thriller
Age Certification: 15 (UK)/R (US)


 

– Mat S

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