BLACK MASS – The Review
Hit the deck! Rat-a-tat-tat!! These are the sounds of a cinema staple, the gangster genre. From the early silent days, “thugs with dirty mugs” were the source of many a “hit” at the box office, of course. Soon after the Brothers Warner began their studio, they quickly became the premiere producers of these “blood and thunder” morality plays, featuring a “murderers’ row” of movie icons headed by James Cagney, Edward G Robertson, and Humphrey Bogart. In the waning years of Hollywood’s Golden Age, these thrillers often merged with the biography genre with the stories of real-life 20’s and 30’s criminals like John Dillinger, Bonnie Parker, and Clyde Barrow, and, the big man himself, “Scarface” Al Capone. With the phenomenal success of THE GODFATHER, these “public enemies” were back in vogue, continuing even to this day. Now the Warners are back in the true tale gangster biz, but they’re not offering up a new spin on those tommy-gun toting terrors. Here’s a crime kingpin from a much more recent era who’s actually still around. Now, this isn’t a look at his rise and fall. Rather it’s the tale of an unlikely alliance between this brutal underworld czar and a “G-Man”! Suit up for a truly pitch-dark BLACK MASS.
As the film opens, we’re in an interrogation room, as the “lieutenant” of Boston’s infamous “Winter Hill Gang”, Kevin Weeks (Jesse Plemons) talks about his boss, the crime ruler of the Irish south side, James “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp). We then flashback to FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) who has returned to his hometown in 1975, along with his bride Marianne (Julianne Nicholson), and is now part of the bureau’s Boston HQ. The local agents are frustrated with their lack of progress in stopping the illegal activities of the Italian mob to the north and Whitey’s south stronghold. Then John gets an idea. He grew up in the same neighborhood as the Bulgers, why not reach out to state Senate politico Billy Bulger (Benedict Cumberbatch) and see if he can put him in contact with Whitey, so that he can recruit him as an informant on his Italian rivals (in exchange, the feds would look the other way on Whitey’s petty crimes). John’s supervisor Charles McGuire (Kevin Bacon) is skeptical, but another agent, John Morris (David Harbour) is supportive. Billy Bulger is insulted by John, but to his shock, Whitey calls the agent. So, an agreement is forged. As long as Whitey supplies the info and steers clear of felonies (particularly murder), the FBI will ease up on his operations. But the hair-trigger Whitey is not so easily restrained, and soon he’s setting up shop in Miami, while providing guns and cash to the IRA. As he and John become a close team (and the agent become a rising star at the bureau), a new prosecutor, Fred Wyshak (Corey Stoll) questions this “relationship”. Can he possibly reign in Whitey’s gang , who’s now protected by the ambitious Connolly?
The film’s main selling point is Depp as the almost reptilian mob boss, Whitey, and he most certainly delivers. After more than a decade of maximum quirk as the MVP of Tim Burton and Gore Verbinski flicks, he’s tossed the eyeliner and eccentric duds and nails the complexity of this real life monster mobster. He can be sweet and charming as in the scenes with his sainted mother and adored young son. But then, almost without warning, a switch is flipped and the killer is freed from its shackles. With his hair slicked back to a bullet-like sheen, Depp evokes the image of a human cobra, one that gives no hiss as a warning. On the contrary, he takes great giddy pleasure from lulling his prey into relaxed calm, even shaking their hands, before the out-of-nowhere death strike. With a performance recalling Cagney classics (THE PUBIC ENEMY and WHITE HEAT), it’s nice to see Deep back on earth after so many years in on the planet of the weird. While his image adorns the ads and posters, the film is really the story of the seduction and corruption of Connolly ,and Edgerton, coming off his excellent work on THE GIFT, shows us the ambitious longing in the compromised lawman. He will truly bargain with the devil himself in order to advance his career and get to that next level with the grander title and the bigger office. Later we see the desperation in his eyes as Connolly frantically tries to talk himself out of the deep, deep hole that he has dug, one that traps him as its walls collapse about his feet.
Actually the entire cast is stellar as they support these two very compelling leads. Nicholson as Mrs. Connolly presents a woman quickly falling out of love, with a real sense of disgust as she realizes that her husband shares their emotional bed with a creature of pure evil (a creepy confrontation with Whitey is quite unnerving). Harbor is enthralling as Connolly’s cheerleader/sidekick who slowly learns that he’s very much out of his depth. Bacon is an entertaining hardcase as the big FBI boss, but the terrific Adam Scott has little to do besides modeling tacky 70’s fashions and hairstyles, unfortunately. Stoll proves to be a most capable verbal sparring partner for Edgerton. From his introduction, we sense that he’s a legal pit bull. Cumberbatch tempers his small screen charisma and gives us an original take on an “old school” career politician, one with fierce family pride. He can’t turn his back on his family, especially his brother, no matter the horror tales told behind his back. Peter Sarsgaard shines in a terrific small role as a “coked up” Miami wheeler-dealer nicknamed “Balloonhead”. Plemons and W. Earl Brown are very convincing as two of Whitey’s most trusted enforcers, both morphing into dead-eyed real human terminators, while their cohort Rory Cochrane lets his sadness escape through the eyes of his bulldog-like mug. He lets us see how the humiliation and degradation meted out by his boss has taken its toil on him. That “50 Shades” lady, Dakota Johnson brings out the human side of Whitey in her soft, subtle turn as his common-in-law wife Lindsey Cyr. Great cameo turns by Bill Camp and Juno Temple round out this impressive ensemble.
In his third outing as a director (CRAZY HEART, OUT OF THE FURNACE) former actor Scott Cooper fights a difficult battle to keep this long, meandering screenplay moving forward. Unfortunately it usually gets the better of him, despite his considerable efforts. Although it mainly focuses in on a ten-year period going from the disco 70’s to the grim and gritty 80’s, the script quickly becomes an illustrated rap sheet, checking off a list of crimes (then he did this, then this, then…). There are a few moments between murders where the characters rather than the blood-splattered set pieces take command. One such sequence is the very tense BBQ dinner at the Connolly home, going right from a recipe inquiry (probably too similar to Joe Pesci’s iconic “How am I funny?” monologue, but still strong) to the threat-laced passive-aggressive duet between Whitey and Marianne (just watch the other audience members squirm during this). Bulger supposedly was the inspiration for Jack Nicholson’s “Paddy” Costello character in Martin Scorsese’s THE DEPARTED. Ultimately this new film is swallowed up in the shadow of that Oscar winner, and especially by the even earlier GOODFELLAS (Depp often seems to be doing a mash-up of its DeNiro and Pesci characters). This is a shame, since the movie gets the period look, from autos to fashions, down perfectly and the Boston location work is exceptional. Perhaps another script draft, or a bit more narration would have helped keep things moving. At least the film reminds us of what a terrific actor Depp can be when given challenging material. But really all the actors are superb, it’s just truly frustrating that the narrative fumbles what should be a cinema touchdown. BLACK MASS, like the law man’s plan at its center, is a flawed attempt at greatness.
3.5 Out of 5