Black Mass

Release: Friday, September 18, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Mark Mallouk; Jez Butterworth

Directed by: Scott Cooper

In Scott Cooper’s third film, Johnny Depp is one bad man. How bad? Bad enough to make the stench of his Charlie Mortdecai finally drift away, sure. But now another question is bugging me: what does he do after this? How long does Irish-American thug James “Whitey” Bulger define Depp?

I suppose only until the next ill-advised project comes along, but I shouldn’t get ahead of myself too quickly. We ought to bask at least a little longer in this moment. His recent disasters notwithstanding, one thing hasn’t really changed about the actor: he is talented. The problem has been one of motivation; a preference for taking easy money instead of actually working for it. As much as that annoys me, I’d rather it be that than the man simply getting a case of the yips. (Do performance artists get the yips?) The talent didn’t disappear, it just went into hibernation . . . for several years. Now it re-emerges, volatile, unpredictable and explosive as he assumes the profile of one of the most notorious crime lords in American history.

Over the course of a short two hours — particularly short given the film’s slow-burn approach — Black Mass builds a damning case against not only Bulger and his reputation amongst both friends and enemies, but against the FBI. For obvious reasons the criminal activity is alarming, but there’s something just as unnerving about the ineptitude of the prominent law officials who fail for so long to gain the upper hand. In explaining just why that was the case, Black Mass becomes as seedy as the city it skulks around in, feeding bleak and ominous cinematography to viewers who, in all likelihood, are more curious as to how Depp fares than how his character does.

The film ratchets up the tension tracking the rise and fall of a tenuous relationship, rarely offering respite. Bulger and FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) grew up together on the streets, with Connolly being something of an admirer of the notoriously ruthless criminal. That’s sort of how he’s talked into becoming an informant as a way to eliminate the Italian contingent of the Winter Hill Gang, who have been encroaching on Bulger’s South Boston territory. Conducting ‘business’ with Bulger is the kind of stunt that proves to be a hard sell for Connolly to make to his peers and especially his boss, Special Agent Charles McGuire (Kevin Bacon). Bulger has, of course, a few protective barriers that make his arrest nigh on impossible. His brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch) is the mayor of Boston while Whitey’s reputation around town provides the movie its quota of visceral, sudden deaths that are brutally staged and extremely well-timed.

Despite the few who are stupid enough to doubt or defy Whitey, Black Mass isn’t quite as physical as you might expect; it works best as a psychological drama involving a slew of characters that are as difficult to trust as their own unrepentantly hateful attitudes are to justify. Reminiscent of Cooper’s previous effort, Out of the Furnace, is a brilliant, character-driven screenplay that paints a portrait of organized crime and corruption that has infiltrated all levels of society. David Harbour is in as Connolly’s partner-in-crime(solving) John Morris, while Bacon handles Special Agent McGuire with aplomb . . . and a semi-ridiculous Boston accent. Notable criminal personalities are brought to life by the likes of Jesse Plemons (as Kevin Weeks), Peter Sarsgaard, Rory Cochrane, W. Earl Brown, and Bill Camp, all of which add tremendous depth to this portrait of a Boston all but overrun by violent criminal activity.

Indeed, Depp is not on his own here, even if his is the worst in a bunch of very bad seeds, and even if his presence will be the only one we’ll feel for a long time after leaving the theater. Cooper’s ensemble cast — including a reprieve for Dakota Johnson in the form of Bulger’s longtime girlfriend Lindsay and a random appearance from Adam Scott as a peripheral FBI agent — are largely to thank for the film’s inglorious depiction of corrupt and criminal ways of thinking. That Black Mass has such a stacked cast — another similarity to his 2013 blue-collar drama — means the admittedly pedestrian narrative has more room to breathe. These characters are intimidating in their own ways, distinguishing a story that we’ve seen redressed over and again by the likes of Martin Scorsese and Brian de Palma, even Michael Mann’s Public Enemies in which Depp portrayed another infamous gangster.

This film doesn’t quite glorify the lifestyle of Scorsese’s mean streets but if I’m even suggesting that kind of comparison (without feeling overly dramatic doing so), Cooper is clearly doing something right. Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth’s screenplay paints broad strokes, and there are several plot strands that disappear at a moment’s notice as we cover the roughly 10-year period in which Whitey rose to prominence. Even if it does leave a few questions unanswered, Black Mass remains unencumbered by a lack of meticulousness because it ultimately succeeds in provoking dread and fear. An evil empire was allowed to flourish under the FBI, and that part is more fucked up than anything.

In fewer words, Black Mass tries to stand out, whereas Johnny Depp actually does.

Recommendation: In a welcomed return to form for Captain Jack Sparrow Johnny Depp, Black Mass offers an acting showcase for everyone involved. Fact-based story takes us on a harrowing journey through the rough streets of south Boston of the ’70s and ’80s and while some parts could have benefitted from expansion, on the whole this is a story well worth paying to see on the big screen. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 122 mins.

Quoted: “You were just saying? ‘Just saying’ gets people sent away. ‘Just saying’ got me a nine-year stretch in Alcatraz, you understand? So, ‘just saying’ can get you buried real quick.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

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41 thoughts on “Black Mass

  1. I really really like Joel Edgerton, so I’m actually gonna see this for him. I’m just so-so with Depp but glad to see he’s actually acting again after phoning it in for so many years. I’ll rent this though, as I don’t think I can handle the brutal violence on the big screen.

    • Joel Edgerton is as good as ever so hopefully he doesn’t let you down Ruth. 🙂 The real show-stealer is of course Johnny boy, but with a cast this deep, Black Mass will have more than just him to offer. On the violence front, I was actually surprised by Cooper’s restraint, and while there are a few moments here and there that are pretty grim nothing is graphic. The power of suggestion is employed with great effect.

  2. Finally, some praise for the Deppster! It certainly looks like and interesting role for him. As much as I’ve had some admiration for Scott Cooper’s previous films I’ve also found them lacking a certain something. I’m really hoping this doesn’t have the same flaws but your positive review gives me hope, man. Very good review, as always, mucker!

    • From Dumpster to Deppster, that’s the big story behind this one. I think if you’ve found areas of improvement in Cooper’s work before, this should prove no different. The story kind of lacks but that’s in comparison to one of Depp’s finest performances of his career. I think most of the flaws you can find with this are easier to accept when the acting is all-around very solid. I was impressed. Thanks very much dude!

  3. My word, there may be some hope for Depp after all. I’m looking forward to seeing this as (a) I love the genre and (b) Cumberbatch is in it randomly. Interesting bit of casting that.

    • There is hope after all, my friend. The commercials, given how much they were hyping up this movie, certainly seemed like they had just witness history. I basically had some of Depp’s lines memorized before they even appeared in the final cut! haha. But the hype this time is kind of worth trusting. Depp is far more menacing here than he was as John Dillinger, and though the scale of Mann’s gangster film I think was slightly more compelling, the milieu Cooper establishes here is far more seedy. Really liked that about it, and the fact that Depp seemed so comfortable working within it.

      And you’re right, the casting is super interesting.

    • Given how frequently TV spots were showing clips of him in this performance, it was all but unsurprising to find him grabbing my attention throughout the film without fail. It was kind of inevitable. But in this case, I think the hype has actually been worth it. I guess that’s one advantage of him taking such a long time to getting back to doing solid, meaningful work. There’s this kind of comparison we can all now make between this kind of an effort and his post-Pirates of the Caribbean crap. haha

  4. Excellent review Tom. I’m glad Depp is venturing back into some meatier roles (or, at the very least, better roles). I always liked him as Jack Sparrow but he definitely needed something different. Looking forward to catching this! Great cast.

    • The cast propels the story forward. Depp is utterly entrancing, even if he’s helped out also by some pretty menacing make-up. But he is also helped out immensely by cracking turns from Edgerton (he’s having a fraeking great year), Cumberbatch, Bacon and hell — everyone else. Much like Out of the Furnace, Black Mass finds great uses for its many significant players. Really enjoyed this. I greatly anticipate your review

        • Oh man, you should get a look at The Gift if it is still around for you, I think it’s hanging out here in the States for a few more days, maybe a week or two more. I hope. It was damn worth it. He actually made me more excited being a director than he has as an actor, and he’s been damn fine as an actor! 😀 Cheers dude

  5. It’s the best thing Depp has done in years. And yet, he’s still relying on what I call another another “Tim Burton-style” makeup job. The contacts, the bald cap, the pale skin – his bizarre get-up is so distracting. Indeed Depp is back, but he’s still not operating at 100% capacity.

    • I agree to an extent, there is definitely a lot of make-up involved and it did take me awhile and some effort to not just admire how ruthless he looked and then think it was mostly b/c of make-up, but in this case it went a long way in creating the intimidating atmosphere Black Mass thrived on. I do agree though that it’s been awhile since we’ve seen him basically portray another human being and not create a wild visual. I think John Dillinger might have been the most recent example? Wished that movie was a bit better too though. Haha

  6. Good read, sir! I’d forgotten that this was coming out (UK in a few weeks, I guess) but I saw the trailer a couple of months ago and was intrigued as it suggested a bit of a Joe-Pesci-in-GoodFellas kind of performance from Depp. Happy to see all your positive remarks and will definitely catch this at the cinema. Useful supporting cast too!

    • Extremely useful supporting cast! OH man, this movie was a great example of having a potentially distractingly famous cast, but justifying it b/c some of the minor roles are given such life by the likes of Stoll and Sarsgaard and even Adam Scott manages to play it straight here! I really admired that about this film, but Depp is the stand-out for sure. It’s a heavy-on-the-make-up kind of deal again but in this case I think it fits excellently within this world

  7. Its great to hear that Johnny Depp has finally made a good movie because I think we were all starting to get a little tired of his act. Great review as always, Tom

    • You couldn’t be more right there man. Black Mass thankfully provides a different direction for him. And I’m glad the trailers that have been playing ad nauseum didn’t completely dampen my enthusiasm for this thing. Went in excited and left pretty much satisfied. The story could’ve been stronger but this is an acting showcase.

  8. Enjoyed this for the cast first and foremost, as the story is basic but easy to get into. I’d watch again but in no rush to either. Very nice start to the fall movie season, however, and a nice review to boot, good sir.

    • Thanks, it’s a sure sign of a new season of (hopefully) better movies! That’s definitely true, and while I think this could have been slightly better, I saw this is as one of the make-or-break films of the year and fortunately it definitely worked out. Depp is great here, even if he’s caked under a ton of make-up once again. Very good film

    • I would highly recommend checking this out. Johnny’s baaaaack!!!!! 😉

      And yes I did see Transcendence and yes, I took awhile to recover from that one. Wally Pfister needs to remain a cinematographer I think. He doesn’t necessarily need to stay loyal to Christopher Nolan, but he needs to stay in that capacity. Just my two cents.

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