Black Mass (***)
Running Time: 122 minutes
Director: Scott Cooper
Cast: Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbath, Dakota Johnston and Kevin Bacon
(Movie House Cinemas, Dublin Road Screening, 19/11/2015)
“In the beginning, Jim was a small time player. He really only mattered in Southie. Don’t get me wrong, he was a tough motherfucker, but small time. And the next thing you know, he was a goddamn kingpin. You know why? Because the FBI let it happen.”
CHRONCILING the rise and eventual fall of Irish-American mobster James “Whitey” Bulger, Black Mass is based on a true events involving one of the biggest blunders in the history of the FBI. Sporting an impressive ensemble cast, the film sees Johnny Depp back on form as the ultra-intimidating crime lord of South Boston, where bonds of trust can disappear in the blink of an eye and loyalties run thicker than blood.
On the other side of this cops and robbers tale is Joel Edgerton, playing bouffanted FBI hotshot John Connolly. As a man who has a well-meaning but ultimately flawed set of morals, he enters into a Faustian pact with his schoolyard friend Bulger, hoping that together they can rid the city of the increasingly influential Italian Mafia. Bulger receives a conditional carte blanche for his criminal activities but it doesn’t take long before his psychotic tendencies leave a bloody trail that forces the FBI’s hand and threatens to expose Connolly’s wavering fidelity towards justice.
Directed by Out of the Furnace’s Scott Cooper, Black Mass is a functional gangster drama that takes many of its cues from Scorsese pictures such as Goodfellas and The Departed. there’s one scene in particular where Depp exorcise his inner Joe Pesci, when he all but threatens a fellow dinner guest over an offhand remark. However, the dialogue in general lacks the charisma and humour of a crime-glamouring Scorsese script while some of the characterisation is abandoned in favour of moving the plot forward.
Not since 1997’s Donnie Brasco has Depp been so captivating within a crime drama, Michal Mann’s Public Enemies was a bloated and underwhelming affair. His performance in Black Mass is filled with pure menace; it’s a welcome departure from the likes of Captain Jack Sparrow and his oddball Burton roles. His pale, skeletal appearance, complete with piercing blue eyes is admittedly just as cartoonish at times,but makes for some downright frightening viewing; one scene in particular where he intimidates Connolly’s wife (Julianne Nicholson) is an absolutely skin-crawling experience.
Unfortunately, these scenes are few and far between and with such a large cast, we’re forced to split our time across the varying degrees of separation between good and evil. Benedict Cumberbatch feels somewhat underused as Bulger’s noble politician brother, while Peter Sarsgaard’s turn as an unhinged paranoid gun-for-hire is short and sweet. Kevin Bacon and Adam Scott appear as no-nonsense pencil-pushing G-men while Juno Temple’s small role simply highlights that this is really a men’s-only story. Wonky wigs and dodgy accents aside, Edgerton is perhaps the most engaging of this ensemble thanks to his vigorous, bullish performance as the conflicted lawman.
For Depp at least, it’s a step in the right direction. By allowing him to flex his acting chops in a manner that’s not madcap or over-the-top, he makes for a downright, horrible villain. The blurred lines between order and chaos is an idea we’ve seen done better before, time and time again but Depp’s loathsome, untrustworthy portrayal of one of the most wanted men in America elevates Black Mass into something more than just your run-of-the-mill crime caper.