Black Mass Movie Review: The South Boston Slow Burn
Oscars Season seems to have started a little early this year, and it seems Black Mass is the one to kick the whole thing off! So, what better way to do so than to delve into the rise and fall of a man who was once on the FBI’s Most Wanted List just below Osama bin Laden – South Boston’s own James “Whitey” Bulger?
Based off the true crime book of the same name, Black Mass starts in 1975 with Bulger essentially being a small-time gangster who runs the neighborhood mob called the Winter Hill Gang. And he would have stayed as such if it wasn’t for the return of his childhood friend working for the FBI, who offered to help him stay out of their investigations in exchange for helping him take down a mutual enemy. And while the story is about Bulger’s dealings with the FBI, it’s really the man himself who is front and center, and Johnny Depp does a masterful job at fleshing him out.
Depp has long been one of those actors who has proven he can do just about anything – from the manic genius of Hunter S. Thompson to the demented Sweeny Todd; from the charismatic Captain Jack Sparrow to the kooky Mad Hatter; from doleful Edward Scissorhands to suave Jon Dillinger. And here, he brings to life a man who is cold and calculating and absolutely ruthless. He is a man who will not hesitate to kill you if he even thinks that you are the slightest liability to him. With Depp appearing gaunt, balding and with pale blue eyes, he portrays Bulger as a deeply unsettling person to be around, because you never quite know if you will do or say something that will make your next breath your last.
The film is littered with scenes that drive home the point of how fearsome Bulger was, but the two best are back to back and without any violence at all. The first is when he tries to get his FBI friend’s partner to tell him a secret family recipe for cooking steak, and the second is when he tries to, shall we say, sort out his friend’s marital problems. Depp’s presence here is dark and menacing, and he almost overshadows the other actors on screen.
The other driving force of the film is Bulger’s childhood friend and FBI handler John Connolly, played by Joel Edgerton. He plays the interesting role of a man on the right side of the law who idolizes Bulger. Throughout the movie, he’s ducking the wrath of his boss, Charles McGuire (Kevin Bacon) as he is constantly giving more and more leeway to Bulger and his gang. He plays off Depp very well here, and brings a bit of a brave naivete to the role.
The other big name, who doesn’t have as much to do here except be the occasional counterpoint to Depp, is Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays William Bulger, the brother of Whitey. Here he is the exact opposite of his brother as the President of the Massachusetts Senate and is shown to essentially take every opportunity to wash his hands of his brother’s business without actually washing his hands of his brother. The rest of the cast also acquits themselves well here, with Dakota Johnson playing Lindsey Cyr, girlfriend to Bulger; and Jesse Plemmons, Rory Cochrane and W. Earl Brown filling out the rest of the Winter Hill Gang as Kevin Weeks, Stephen Flemmi and hitman Johnny Mortorano respectively.
And while all the actors did a great job, the writing and directing here also deserve a bit of credit. Writers Jez Butterworth and Mark Mallouk do an excellent job of writing a fairly tight story without getting caught up in the minutiae of it all. As well, former actor and now director Scott Cooper does an excellent job here, keeping the pace pretty even in a largely talk heavy film. It begins to drag a little late in the second act, making the film feel just a little longer than its two hour run time; but in a film that lacks the charismatic and flashy wiseguys usually showcased in films like Casino and Goodfellas, you begin to see why the Chicago Film Critics Association nominated him the most promising director back in 2009, as he handles the subtlety of his story with skill. While he hasn’t exactly made splash yet, I expect for him to garner more attention and a nomination for best director at the next Oscars.
All in all, this film was a great way to kick off the Oscar Season! With solid work both in front and behind the camera, I fully expect several Oscar nominations and more than a few wins – with Johnny Depp bagging a Best Actor for his work as Bulger. This is a must see, even if you’re not a fan of true crime or mob movies.
By Mathew Gruman @mattgeekshow
All images provided courtesy Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.
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