Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Movie Review: Black Mass

Black Mass
Directed by: Scott Cooper.
Written by: Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth based on the book by Dick Lehr and Gerard O'Neill.
Starring: Johnny Depp (James 'Whitey' Bulger), Joel Edgerton (John Connolly), Benedict Cumberbatch (Billy Bulger), Dakota Johnson (Lindsey Cyr), Kevin Bacon (Charles McGuire), Peter Sarsgaard (Brian Halloran), Jesse Plemons (Kevin Weeks), Rory Cochrane (Steve Flemmi), David Harbour (John Morris), Adam Scott (FBI Agent Robert Fitzpatrick), Corey Stoll (Fred Wyshak), Julianne Nicholson (Marianne Connolly), W. Earl Brown (John Martorano), Bill Camp (John Callahan), Juno Temple (Deborah Hussey).

Johnny Depp has taken a lot of criticism of the past few years – much of it admittedly deserved – for his performances, which seem to be unhinged and eccentric – or perhaps just unhinged and eccentric in the exact same way each time. With the exception of last year’s Transcendence however, Depp has never given an uncommitted performance. Sure, he has given some awful performances in the past few years, but Depp really does seem to be trying each time out – and sometimes, it just doesn’t work. Therefore, it is a pleasure to see his work in Scott Cooper’s Black Mass – played infamous Boston gangster James “Whitey” Bulger – who ran the rackets in Southie, murdered a lot of people, and was a protected FBI informant who used his status as an informant to get the FBI to eliminate all his enemies that he personally couldn’t. It is another committed performance by Depp – but this time in a completely different way. His Bulger is cold, cruel and calculated – and he doesn’t let the layers of makeup, the contact lens or the deliberately bad hair piece he’s wearing to do all the acting for him. It truly is a wonderful performance – his best since his underrated turn in Michael Mann’s Public Enemies (2009) – and perhaps even further back than that. Unfortunately for Depp – and the audience – however he is far and away the best thing about director Scott Cooper’s movie. The film has a great ensemble cast, but often they simply seem to be trying to outduel each other in their exaggerated Boston accents. The plotting of the film is more than a little confused as well. Because of Depp’s performance however the film is still well worth seeing – but had it been as good as Depp is in it, it would be one the year’s best.

The film basically alternates between the two different sides in the equation. Most of the time is spent with Jimmy, as he moves from small time hood, willing and eager to do whatever it takes to get ahead. The rest of the time is spent with John Connolly, who is already a “hero” FBI agent, when he’s transferred back to his old stomping grounds in Southie. He grew up friends with Jimmy’s brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch) – now a powerful State Senator – and when he joins the task force assigned to take down the mob in Boston, he reaches back out to Billy to get in touch with Jimmy. They’re all Southie guys – and John believes Jimmy can help him bring down the Italians who run the city. And if the FBI needs to allow Jimmy to get away with some things, so be it. The Mafia is the probably – Jimmy’s a small time hood – at least for now. But Jimmy keeps getting bigger – and John keeps right on letting him, getting closer and closer to his informant.

Joel Edgerton is a fine actor – he has been great in several movies, most recently in his own directorial debut The Gift, this past summer. However, his Connolly never quite rises to the level to make a good counterpoint to Depp’s Jimmy. Much of the problem seems to be that the film never quite figures him out – it makes complete and total sense why Jimmy does what he does, but Connolly? The movie gives him basically the same speech several times, about loyalty and unbreakable bonds, but it rings false. Cumberbatch is playing an even more thinly defined character – as does the worst accent to boot, so he’s basically a distraction every time he’s onscreen. The stars in the supporting cast are the ones with the smaller roles – Peter Sarsgaard as a crazed, drugged out criminal, Rory Cochrane as one of Jimmy’s key men, who is slowly, silently breaking down throughout the movie, Jesse Plemons as Jimmy’s ever present, young muscle and W. Earl Brown as Jimmy’s go to hit man. They add color to the background of the movie, and help to elevate it.

Black Mass has been compared to the work of Martin Scorsese – but I think that’s a rather lazy comparison. Cooper’s film reminded me much more of the work of Sidney Lumet – in films like Serpico (1973) or Prince of the City (1981). To be fair to Cooper, Black Mass generally looks great – Boston almost always seeming cold and overcast, and he creates a palpable sense of tension that could explode into violence at any time. Plus, there is Depp, who keeps the movie grounded and interesting even when things start to meander in the final act (which isn’t quite set up or executed very well). Overall, Black Mass is an average movie – after Cooper’s first two films, the Oscar winning Crazy Heart and the underrated and under seen Out of the Furnace, it’s a little bit of a step down, yet still keeps me interested to see just what he’s going to do next. He’s got a great film in him – but no matter how great Depp is in it, Black Mass isn’t that film.

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