Black Mass

Posted: December 6, 2015 in Film reviews
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Directed by Scott Cooper. Starring Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton and Benedict Cumberbatch

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In 1970s’ Boston James “Whitey” Bulger (Depp) is a minor crime boss, with his Winter Hill Gang controlling much of the South Side, however when old friend, turned FBI agent, John Connolly (Edgerton) arrives back in his home town to make a name for himself, he offers Bulger a deal, the Winter Hill Gang can get a free pass to do whatever they want, just so long as Bulger helps the FBI take down the Mafioso linked Angiulo Brothers who control much of the city.

Bulger agrees but as the years pass the Winter Hill Gang takes control of more and more crime in Boston, and whilst Connelly’s intentions may have originally been noble, he finds himself sliding ever closer to the dark side, whilst Bulger’s vicious rampage claims more and more lives. Meanwhile Bulger’s brother William (Cumberbatch), an important city politician, tries to steer clear of being tainted by his brother’s crimes.

 

I really wanted to like this. The period setting, a true life tale of vicious gangsters, a gritty drama featuring a bravura performance by an actor stepping outside of his recent comfort zone, a cast of great character actors…

About a third of the way in I started to worry, because the film just wasn’t grabbing me, despite the fact that there’s a lot to like about it. The sets and costumes are spot on, evoking an America now long gone, and it’s hard to quibble over most of the performances. In particular Edgerton is the standout with his portrayal of a law enforcer who can’t forget his roots, a man seduced by money and success, who, in the end, values career advancement and loyalty to a childhood friend over his duty to uphold the law, and even above his relationship with his wife (a sorely underused Julianne Nicholson) and however much this might be perceived as a film about Bulger, to me Connolly’s story is the more fascinating one.

Story wise the film has issues, which is both odd and understandable given it’s based on a true story. For one thing the film seems more eager to show us the individual acts of violence committed by Bulger, yet the wider story of the Winter Hill Gang is rarely glimpsed, so it’s hard to get a feel for just how much of a criminal empire Bulger controlled and he comes across less a mafia don than a cheap, local thug. Similarly skipping lots of years contributes to the story being somewhat disjointed. Clearly the filmmakers felt that the death of someone close to him had an impact on Bulger (though it seem clear he was a nasty piece of work even before tragedy struck) yet immediately after the event we jump forwards several years, meaning we don’t see the immediate impact it may, or may not, have had, and it’s barely mentioned again.

Similarly the relationship between the Bulger brothers seems fascinating, yet Cumberbatch’s presence appears like an afterthought rather than something that could have been focused on more. Benedict gives it his all but he can’t help but feel slightly out of place, in part because Billy is so different to his brother, in part because of all the actors he’s the one who probably has to put more effort into his accent, but mainly because we don’t see enough of him, and barely see the two men together. Plus because Cumberbatch is so popular at the moment it’s harder to see the character meaning he stands out amongst a retinue of great character actors, and not in a good way, meanwhile Edgerton, David Harbour, Rory Cochrane, Jesse Plemons, Corey Stoll and even Kevin Bacon just seem more natural in their roles.

Which brings us to Depp. There is a lot to like about his performance, but for me I could never quite forget that I was watching a performance. It isn’t even so much that I could never forget I was watching Johnny Depp (heck at one point I actually thought it was Di Caprio inhabiting the role so there’s a compliment) so much as I could never forget I was watching a man swathed in latex.

The makeup might make him look like Bulger, but it also serves to distance the character from us. He never quite feels real. Much has been said about him looking like Nosferatu, or some similar bogeyman, and that’s true—and clearly Bulger was a monster. The trouble is that whilst an out and out horror movie can get away with such a monster, in a grounded film like this it just feels wrong and actually serves to make him less threatening.

Still this does remind you that Depp can act, and in places the sense of tension is heightened—in particular a conversation late on with Connolly’s wife is just dripping with treat, as is the all too brief involvement of Juno Temple as a young hooker—the trouble is these scenes come a little too late in the film. It’s also quite obvious that the director has seen a lot of Scorsese films and at times Black Mass strays a little too close to Goodfellows for my liking.

It’s a solid, entertaining enough film, I just can’t help thinking it might have been so much more, and I also can’t help thinking that it would have been better if Depp had relied more on performance and less on prosthetics.

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