Sep 21, 2015

Black Mass

Johnny Depp gives one of his best performances as James "Whitey" Bulger, the notorious Boston gangster who was an informant for the FBI.  Depp is chilling as a brutal criminal with a warm spot for those he loves. However, of all the people who could have played Bulger, why choose someone who looks nothing like him? We have to look past the solid make-up job, the receding hairline, the blondish hair, the distracting blue contact lenses that obscure Depp's expressiveness. Even though his performance is good, it seems encumbered by artifice. Depp fancies himself a modern-day Alec Guinness and loves physical transformations, but in this realistic movie this feels like an uphill battle. Ed Harris would have been spot-on in terms of looks. But so could have Matt Damon, who'd have no trouble with the Southie accent, or Edward Norton, or Ryan Gosling, or even Kevin Bacon, who is in the movie as an FBI agent, and who always rocks. Basically, any good actor who is also a blue-eyed blond could do. All the effort made to turn Depp into Bulger is distracting and it whacks the film out of balance.
The story is incredibly juicy. John Connolly (the excellent Joel Edgerton), is an FBI agent who was a childhood friend of Bulger's and he convinces Bulger to inform against the Boston Italian mafia. The brutal Bulger then uses the government's protection to run rampant and become the mafia kingpin of Boston. The movie is about testing loyalty, and about the good getting in bed with the very bad. The incestuous level of corruption between criminality and the government is the most interesting part, but the script by Jez Butterworth and Mark Mallouk seems a bit unfocused. I would have loved to know a little more about how it was possible for the most notorious gangster in Boston to have a brother (Cumberbatch) who was state senator for Massachusetts.
The direction by Scott Cooper is spotty. Some scenes are powerful but others smack of cliché. Who is really the main character? Bulger or Connolly, who starts out wanting to make a name for himself as the guy who brought the mafia down, and ends up sullying himself and the FBI for recklessly consorting with criminals?
I enjoyed the long, unwieldy movie because the cast is a dream (it also includes Corey Stoll, Peter Sarsgaard, Julianne Nicholson, Dakota Johnson, and Rory Cochrane). While Depp is busy channelling the likes of Christopher Walken, Joel Edgerton brings a dark humor to Connolly, an excitable, ambitious, if crass, agent who gets comfortable playing outside the rules to accommodate Bulger, and then flails in hot water by watching him spin out of his control. Edgerton is an intellectually sexy actor; he brings surprising but coherent quirks to every part he plays. Here, he gives a very layered, rounded performance, swaying between his gratitude and admiration for Bulger, to a comic swagger that creeps in once he gets his way, to his deepening brazen, desperate denial about the terrible mess he has created.
This movie needs a director with a fiercer sense of irony and a stronger sense of outrage. Still, if you like gangster films, this one's a keeper. Even the good guys are thugs.

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