Black Mass (2015)
Directed by Scott Cooper
Starring:Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch
Terrifying, but Fun
by Mason Manuel
The tale of “James Whitey Bulger” is hardly a new one. A gangster who you can’t help but love, who is loved by his community and friends. He would be a pretty great guy if not for the fact that he is killing people all the time. Crime biopics have a knack of falling into the same by-the-numbers plot following the rise and fall of the subject. Yet, while Black Mass does not necessarily throw off this tired formula, some great performances and intense sequences make it a film worth enjoying.
Based entirely on a true story, the film follows the relationship between the F.B.I and their deal with the devil, Bulger. Bulger’s boyhood friend, John Connely has become an F.B.I agent and uses his past relationship to get an inside voice in the crime rings of Boston. At first the deal works out smoothly. The F.B.I gets the credit for taking down the Italian mafia while Bulger slowly sinks his roots deeper into other criminal enterprises. Soon enough Bulger turns from a small time gangster to a major kingpin of the underground. What’s worse, Connely does not have the ability to shut Bulger down because he is protected as a high profile informant. So, rather than try to fight and do the right thing, Connely decides that a few white lies to protect Bulger being persecuted for murders will keep himself protected as well. Knowing that he has Connely under his thumb, Bulger decides to grow and become one of the most notorious criminals the world has ever seen.
Director Scott Cooper has a knack for giving decaying settings life and vigor. The shambling poor district of South Boston (Otherwise known as Southie) is beautifully realized with its constant gray skies and palpable feel of urban sprawl. Much like his previous film Out of the Furnace the environment the charecters live in has as much depth as the character’s themselves. Speaking of which, the performances from almost all of the actors are on point and occasionally terrifying to watch, most notably with Johnny Depp’s portrayal of Bulger. His seething eyes, pale skin, and intense glare will make even the most steadfast audience member shift uncomfortably in their seat. That being said, he also comes off as a huge sweetheart. When he is not killing enemies and heads of rival gangs, he makes sure to visit his mother, help old ladies pack their groceries, and be a loving father to his young son. His personality switches on a dime and shows great power in Depp’s acting ability. The other actors have their moments as well, but some get lost in the fray until the back half of the film. Surprisingly, Joel Edgerton’s John Connely never really makes a mark, despite being a key player in the proceedings. He, almost more than Bulger, has a terrific rise and fall story becoming a celebrated agent to becoming as shady as the people he gets information from, but Edgerton’s acting never makes him feel very real or worth investing in.
When trying to recreate real characters, a production should do everything it can to make sure that the original people are honored. I can only imagine that this is why almost all of the lead actors are caked in a ridiculous amount of prosthetics. Obviously most notable is Depp as Bulger; there are many times where his frightening performance is defeated by the simple awkwardness of seeing him in a shoddy receding hairline wig and facial additions. Breaking Bad’s Jesse Plemons is given jowls and a beer gut that looks completely out of place and distracts from the ongoing events. Whomever is doing this old man makeup should never ever do old man makeup again; I feel like I am watching Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar all over.
Luckily, with a combination of great acting and Jez Butterworth & Mark Mallouk’s adapted, brutal screenplay, Black Mass is an excellent gangster film. It may not do anything that is incredibly new but its familiar story never feels boring or cliché. The characters all have their own way of justifying their actions, and seeing the lengths they will go to accomplish their objective can be terrifyingly fun to watch. RDR gives this wise guy a 6.9 out of 10.