Review: Black Mass

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Ever since the western had gone its way as the standard bearer of American mythology, the gangster picture quickly filled its place. It’s easy to see that living vicariously through criminals and mob bosses had a facile sway over the popular culture. Of course, films about organized crime have been present in cinema since the silent era, but the rough and tumble vibe of New Hollywood in the 1970’s legitimized the appeal. The allure has only grown up through the modern era, as seemingly every year yields a new entry into the genre, whether in television or on celluloid. The gangster lifestyle has certainly been one to aspire towards, but not necessarily achieve, lest one face the consequences of reality. However, reality can also have its own way of eluding those consequences. For several decades, James “Whitey” Bulger was in unbelievably fortunate circumstances that allowed him to have free reign over the city of Boston. Black Mass is his story, which offers a thorough, occasionally provocative recounting of those bountiful times, yet also does little to penetrate his personal narrative beyond the facts.

Being locked up in Alcatraz is a good way to cement your name among the most infamous in America. Being the brother of a politician and having an inside connection to Federal Bureau of Investigations is also a good way to being protected. Through the 1970’s and 1980’s, this is what defined the life of James “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp), one of the most notorious gangsters in America. His brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch) was a Massachusetts state senator, and his childhood friend John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) was rising fast in the FBI ranks. Now in a position to make a heavy impact on Boston’s crime community, Connolly approaches the bureau to make Bulger an informant. Both parties, the FBI and Bulger himself, initially balk at the proposal, but the end result could be mutually beneficial: the agency can use Bulger’s information to bring down rival criminal organizations, and Bulger can essentially roam free under Connolly’s protection. The only caveat is that Bulger is prohibited from murdering, which eventually becomes a major problem. As Connolly becomes increasingly involved in Bulger’s operations, it becomes clear that the legality of their alliance will quickly dissolve.

This overarching narrative of Black Mass spans a couple of decades, and the writers take an interesting route in framing the story through confessional testimony coming from Bulger’s former associates. From low level enforcers to his most trusted confidants, everyone offers a compelling take on the key events of Bulger’s life from that time period. However, while this makes for interesting cinematic jumps back and forth from the past to present day, the telling of the story feels clinically fact based. The sequence of events is presented cohesively, but there is little feeling of development or escalation. Individual scenes have the ability to be truly compelling and suspenseful, but the transition from one to the next lacks progression. There are also some moments of intimacy that lend fresh perspective to some characters, but they only crop up once or twice, not nearly enough to paint a full portrait. That said, the two key performances in the film are captivating on their own. Aided by prosthetics and oily slicked back hair, Johnny Depp’s cold blooded turn is surely his most committed work in years. Bulger’s calculating presence seeps through nearly every scene of Black Mass, a reminder of how dominant Depp can be even when he lingers in the background. Joel Edgerton is equally strong as John Connolly, whose mirages of rightful cause mask his own sleazy agendas.

If there is another character that feels fully envisioned in Black Mass it is the city of Boston itself. Director Scott Cooper finds a genuine texture to the environmental trappings and neighborhoods that Bulger called home much like he captured the working class essence of the city of Braddock in Out of the Furnace. True to contemporary gangster form, little is glamorous about Bulger’s life, so the domesticated production design implies that the kingpin’s power didn’t need to translate into material possessions. Likewise, Masanobu Takayanagi’s cinematography is relatively unfussy and composed, reflective of the man never reveals his thoughts unless he is absolutely forced. These cinematic elements come closest to providing an internal look into this dangerous man’s life. If eyes are windows to the soul, then what can only be found in those icy blues of James “Whitey Bulger” is ultimately an unknowable abyss.

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~ by romancinema on September 21, 2015.

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