Review – Black Mass

At some point, almost as a sort of cinematic right of passage, an American filmmaker will try to make their own Scorsese crime epic. The cinematic language of the modern crime film by Scorsese indicates gangsters who are humanized, violence that is grounded, a blurred line between good guys and bad guys, a non-judgmental presentation of criminal life, and a real sense of authentic style to it. Cooper’s been ridiculed by critics in the past for calling back to previous iconic works – see: Out of the Furnace – but the difference between him and any other imitator is that he doesn’t imitate, he replicates and creates his own work using a familiar cinematic language of what’s come before. It’s okay for a film to be in the vein of a previous one, so long as it does a good job of it. Scorsese invented the cinematic language of the modern crime film, and Cooper is pretty fluent in it.

The script by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth (based on the book by Boston Globe reporters Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill) weaves its way between the lives of violent Boston gangster James “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp) and FBI Agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) with narration coming from the testimonies of Bulger’s gang members who would later give information against him. Both having grown up in the same neighborhood as children, when Connolly gets transferred to the Boston FBI office to take down the Angiulo crime family, he pitches to the bureau that they bring in Whitey as a confidential informant. Neither Bulger nor Connolly will use the wrods “informant” or “rat” with each other, those are dirty words, instead using the term “alliance”. Bulger will give information that will bring down the Angiulo family, and Connolly will offer Bulger FBI protection and immunity to continue his criminal activities. With Angiulo gone, Bulger is then able to take over the criminal underworld of without any opposition from both criminal elements and law enforcement. So began the corrupt alliance between the FBI and one of the most violent gangsters in American history.

Johnny Depp hasn’t felt this authentic in a long time. Even with the makeup work done to make him physically resemble Whitey, it doesn’t work without him fully inhabiting Bulger as he does here. He completely disappears into the role, which is tough for an actor as widely recognizable as him. Each gesture, mannerism and look is an informed and lived-in bit of performance that shows how far Depp has sunk into the role. In Depp’s hands you get a sense of why so many were loyal to him, the awe-inspiring effect he had on his cronies and on Connolly, this is evident in how he commands each scene with ferocity and dedication. But you also immediately understand how violent, psychopathic and calculated he always was. The way Depp can switch from easy-going to life-threatening in a single dialogue passage is captivating. With him, easy-going and life-threatenting are sometimes the same thing. He really is the a personification of the devil on screen here. It’s an all-time great performance from Depp, a work of fierce commitment and authenticity. It’s a shame we’ll only be getting more types of films after this (more Alice in Wonderland and Pirates of the Caribbean films on the way) that created the narrative of this film as a comeback role for Depp.

Joel Edgerton gives one of the best performances in a career filled with plenty of them. He completely owns the Boston accent he dons, and manages to make his character arc evident simply in the way he carries himself. The deeper he sinks with Whitey, the more showy he interacts with others. He gets a swagger in his step and starts dressing sharper. In a sense, he’s making himself into the sort of gangster that he idolizes in Bulger. It helps drive home the theme of the blurry line between good and evil in this story, a dynamic that Edgerton and Depp personify appropriately. There’s a tragic sense in the way Edgerton plays out Connolly’s downward spiral, his performance an inspection of ego. He can feel the bureau closing in around him, but continues to tell himself he’s got it under control. Prosecutor Fred Wyshak practically puts him on the stand about the nature of his and Whitey’s relationship when Connolly introduces himself in Wyshak’s office, and watching Connolly fumble around for excuses is surprisingly sympathetic in Edgerton’s hands, despite you knowing Connolly deserves what’s coming.

Similar to his previous films, Cooper assembles an all-star caliber ensemble and gets memorable performances across the board. Rory Cochrane is almost unrecognizable in the slouching and remorseless role of Steve Flemmi, Bulger’s right hand man. W. Earl Brown’s uncaring demeanor and cold stare plays well into Bulger’s hitman John Martorano. Jesse Plemons transcends as Kevin Weeks, a younger enforcer in Whitey’s Winter Hill inner circle. One of his first scenes finds him taking a beating to the head, and as blood comes down his face he stares some sort of cross between arousal and murder that’s unlike anything seen from Plemons before. Benedict Cumberbatch aptly dons a Bostonian accent in his role as Whitey’s brother Billy Bulger, who was also President of the Massachusetts State Senate, though his native English accent begins to peak through here and there. Peter Sarsgaard sweats his way through a brief role as Brian Halloran, a coked-up nervous wreck of a man who is eventually killed by Whitey after talking to the FBI. Character actor MVP David Harbour makes compelling work out of crushing guilt and fear as John Morris, Connolly’s partner who is equally implicit in Whitey’s free reign. Kevin Bacon and Corey Stoll bring the necessary authority to their FBI roles as Connolly’s boss Charles McGuire (Bacon) and Fred Wyshak (Stoll), the prosecutor who would take down Bulger and Connolly. The female roles feel thankless, but the performers in them elevate the material. Dakota Johnson as Whitey’s girlfriend and mother of his son Lindsey, Juno Temple as junkie/sex worker and murder victim Deborah Hussey, and an especially great Julianne Nicholson as Connolly’s wife Marianne take the stock characters that are written and give striking authenticity.

There’s a comedic edge to multiple scenes of gangster activity, the dark comedy that comes out the larger than life aspects of how these men lived, but Cooper never loses sight that these were real people who did awful things and that real people died gruesome deaths. The violence in this film is cinematic, but never feels glorified. There’s tension and release in its scene construction and cinematography by Masanobu Takayanagi – consider how jarring and disorienting the killing scene of Brian Halloran is as the camera stays in the car while the first bullets fly through, you’re just as clueless as Halloran is as to where the bullets are coming from – but the only reaction you feel is to recoil. It’s all appropriately tough to watch. Death and violence have a foreboding effect on each scene. It gets to the point where if Whitey’s in a car, you just automatically assume somebody is about to be murdered.

The script suffers problems that most films would in trying to condense 20 years of material into 2 hours. There are rumors that the original cut was 3 hours, and it’s a believable claim after watching the film. Characters get forgotten abruptly and the subplots can get hazy. Martorano seemingly disappears in the third act, and Adam Scott is terribly underused as FBI Agent Robert Fitzpatrick. Scott is just kind of there in the background for a few scenes and that’s it, which is an inherent shame because we’re denied what could have been a good performance, but also because Fitzpatrick played a more pivotal role in bringing down Connolly than the film would let on. It’s also never quite understood what the Jai Alai scam involves from Whitey, what his stakes are in that. Thankfully, Cooper and editor David Rosenbloom pace the picture steadily enough that it overcomes those issues. Tom Holkenborg (Junkie XL), having an MVP year of film scoring with Mad Max: Fury Road another 2015 credit of his, crafts a dark and emotional score that helps patch up some of the construction problems through its sonic and emotive captivation.

Does the film add much of anything new to the crime film? I suppose not, but that’s not to say it doesn’t do the genre justice. It’s a crime film that feels like it’s only a few steps away from being classic. Cooper is confident in his ability to tell this story with the appropriate mixture of cinematic style and historical gravity. He’s a young American filmmaker who only seems to be getting better. Most filmmakers aren’t this sure of themselves their 3rd film in, especially when it’s a picture with subject matter as big as this. I’m not sure I’m ready to call it Cooper’s best film yet, but that’s not to say it doesn’t come close.

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