Thursday, September 17, 2015

Review: Black Mass

Image courtesy of Warner Bros.
Let's get this out of the way first - "Black Mass" is not a great gangster movie, but it's a pretty good one and Johnny Depp gives his best performance in a while as the notorious James "Whitey" Bulger, although my favorite Depp mob movie remains the underrated "Donnie Brasco."

Bulger led a long and prosperous criminal career and was once listed as one of the FBI's most wanted, evading the bureau as a fugitive from justice for nearly 17 years. Those seeking an in-depth view at the life or personality of Bulger will want to look elsewhere as the mobster is more of a supporting player in his own story and Depp's portrayal, although quite good, emphasizes the myth over the man.

One of the elements that drags "Black Mass" down a bit is that it is missing a lead character or narrator. The picture occasionally focuses on Bulger and includes a few sequences in which he communicates with his wife/girlfriend (never quite clear) and young son to humanize him, but the story is mostly told through his cohorts.

As the film opens, we are led to believe that the character who will navigate us through Bulger's world is Kevin Weeks (Jesse Plemons, of "Breaking Bad"), a bouncer who becomes a de facto bodyguard for the gangster. And then, the narrative viewpoint occasionally switches over to Steve Flemming (Rory Cochrane), another cohort.

Most often, the story is told from the perspective of John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), an FBI agent whose assignment is to investigate Boston's mob scene but, since he knows Bulger from his youth, he comes up with an idea to bring Whitey in as an informant. However, this ends up resulting in Connolly shielding Bulger from investigation in return for measly tidbits of information that incriminates Bulger's competition - the Italian mob. It also helps that Bulger's brother (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a state senator.

Although Edgerton's character is a tad bit underwritten, he's a good foil for Bulger. He's the weasel to Depp's stone cold killer. Much of the film involves other characters reacting in shock to Bulger's behavior as if he's the boogeyman himself, which is likely another reason why Depp plays the character at a remove. It's a solid performance, certainly Depp's best in a while.

"Black Mass" is violent and gloomy and while the screenplay occasionally lacks focus, the subject matter itself and Depp's unnerving performance keeps us hooked. There's a particularly unsettling scene in which Bulger torments Connolly's wife (Julianne Nicholson), who gets out of a dinner with the mobster and his pals by pretending she's sick due to the fact that he creeps her out. And it's easy to see why.

The film marks a departure for director Scott Cooper, whose previous two films - the very good "Crazy Heart" and the decent "Out of the Furnace" - were dramas set in the heartland and southwest. He's able to mimic the mean street settings and characters who inhabit them in the films of Martin Scorsese well enough, even if his picture never rises to the level of a classic mob movie.

The gangster story has been explored to death in both film ("Goodfellas" to "The Godfather" series) and television ("The Sopranos" and "Boardwalk Empire"), but it's a genre that continues to fascinate because the lives of its characters are so far removed from our own. "Black Mass" doesn't add much new to the genre, but it's a well-made crime drama with a very good lead performance and an air of dread that lingers after the picture has ended.

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