‘Black Mass’ Review: True and Terrifying Crime, With a Depp Charge

17 Sep 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Black Mass Plays Like A Boston-Mob-Thriller Parody.

Gangster films are and aren’t what they used to be. The story of James “Whitey” Bulger — the Irish mob kingpin who strangled and bludgeoned and cheated his way to the top of Boston’s underworld — did not end when, tipped off to impending FBI indictments, he fled the city in 1995.Johnny Depp emerges from the shadows of Black Mass like a vampire from a crypt, the central figure of a crime drama that creeps like a horror movie — and in many respects it is.

Johnny Depp is just too huge of a talent for “Black Mass” to be a total letdown, but given the lineup of other top-tier actors in the cast, not to mention the source material and the resume of the director, long before the credits rolled, a sinking feeling of mild disappointment had set in.In an interview at The Times, the director Scott Cooper answered questions about his film “Black Mass,” featuring Johnny Depp as the Boston crime boss James (Whitey) Bulger.

Bulger and since he was not particularly a great fan of the book…and many of the other books written about him, I got a beautiful response through his attorney that said Mr. Whatever your thoughts on The Departed or The Town—the modern Boston mob/crime thrillers that all modern Boston mob/crime thrillers are measured against—it is undeniable that everyone involved was deeply invested in both. Starring Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dakota Johnson, Julianne Nicholson, Corey Stoll, Peter Sarsgaard, Kevin Bacon, Adam Scott and Juno Temple. After all, his idols Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola made more than a few classic gangster pictures. “I felt a great responsibility to the victims and the victims’ families,” says Cooper with his cast at the Toronto International Film Festival minus leading man Johnny Depp.

Matt Damon had been waiting his whole life to play a character like his Departed rat; I likewise have zero doubt that Mark Wahlberg recites his Departed dialogue and flexes into the mirror when he’s alone at night. (The Town is a series of shots of Ben Affleck shirtless and a bird’s eye view of Boston that happen to be occasionally interrupted by a terrific thriller; it’s the movie Affleck must have daydreamed himself starring in in middle school.) You can tell that these movies are profoundly felt by the participants, and it leads them an authenticity that can’t be faked. For years Bulger was second only to Osama bin Laden on the Most Wanted Fugitives list, until he was finally apprehended in Santa Monica in the summer of 2011. “Black Mass” isn’t about Bulger’s life on the lam. The film, directed with exceptional flair and elegant concision by Scott Cooper, even comes from Warner Bros., the studio that specialized in psychopathic monsters played by such stars as James Cagney and Edward G. It’s a relatively straightforward telling of Whitey’s rise to power in Southie in the 1970s, his precarious alliance with a childhood friend who had become an FBI agent — and the inevitable unraveling of his grubby little empire.

Based on the Black Mass book by Boston Globe reporters Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill, the movie chronicles the illegal confederacy between Bulger and FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) after Bulger cut a deal to work as an informant. A common criticism of even the best and most brutally honest films about gangsters is they glamorize the criminals who are at the center of the story. The arrangement allowed Bulger to operate his extortion and racketeering businesses with an iron fist, generating a dangerous atmosphere of murder and mayhem.

Bulger did all this with startling impunity, because he was a secret gangland snitch for the FBI, which cared more about stopping the local Mafia than his Winter Hill Gang. You’d be hard-pressed to say that about Whitey Bulger and his associates in “Black Mass.” This is not a man with charisma or dark humor or even much in the way of diabolical leadership skills. Much of the production is based on fact, with not one but two monsters—the other being a corrupt FBI agent played by Joel Edgerton—dominating a horror show crossed with a morality tale. The devil’s deal was brokered by Bulger’s childhood “Southie” pal John Connolly, an FBI man played as a mess of ambitious intentions by Joel Edgerton.

He’s just an ambitious thug who surrounds himself with mouth-breathing sycophants and often takes matters into his own hands, whether it’s strangling a young woman who MIGHT inform on him, or gunning down an enemy in broad daylight. The gang lord also had a brother in high places: Massachusetts Senate President William “Billy” Bulger, whom Benedict Cumberbatch coolly portrays as incorruptible yet somehow sinister.

The sequence underscores Bulger’s depravity and murderous psyche in an engrossing way. ““I didn’t see Johnny (Depp) that day until I opened the door, and he’d become that character with those eyes, and it was terrifying, thrilling and a little sexy, which was confusing.” says Nicholson best known for her detective role on Law & Order: Criminal Intent. Bulger’s brother William “Billy” Bulger (played by Benedict Cumberbatch in the film) was a politician who became President of the Massachusetts State Senate.

Depp sports a a receding hairline, grayish skin, and weird, almost milky contact lenses. (And sometimes sunglasses that look like they were left over from his portrayal of Hunter S. Air Force, he’d get pinched on armed robbery; while in federal custody, he subjected himself to the CIA’s MKUltra LSD experimentation program in exchange for a shortened sentence.

Depp digs into Bulger’s black soul with obvious relish, no doubt seeking a role worthy of his abundant talents after years of mostly mirthful coasting. So he repeated the approach on Black Mass. “All actors want to work with Scott,” he says. “He’s elicited multi-dimensional performances from actors who are already known as great. It’s Connolly who sees a chance for self-advancement in forging an alliance with Bulger against Boston’s Italian-American miscreants on behalf of an FBI that has long been fixated on the Cosa Nostra. We meet Bulger’s brother, a State Senator played by Cumberbatch, who may be aiding his psychopath brother but definitely doesn’t want to know any details, and also meet the now FBI agent (Joel Edgerton) who grew up with them as “Southie kids” and now works within the bureau to help Bulger get away with everything. He presents him as a collision of opposites: a cold-blooded killer with bad teeth, vile temper and a trigger finger; but, at the same time, a fastidious family man devoted to his aging mother (he lets her cheat at cards) and bullied young son (he counsels the art of stealth defence).

Over the next few decades — through cocaine and crew coups, through IRA gun runs and Megabucks chicanery, through at least one gang war incited by the biting-off of a man’s nose — Whitey took over, and ran, Boston crime. Whitey plays cards with his dear ol’ Ma , he dotes on his son, he takes care of lifelong pals and the good people of the neighborhood — but he’s also a sociopath who floods schools with drugs and routinely murders enemies and disloyal associates. I think when you grow up as the most powerful crime figure in the city, and your brother is the most powerful and ruthless politician in the city, and your childhood friend is ascending the ranks of the F.B.I., you feel a certain ability to operate with impunity, to almost be bulletproof.

It’s good to see Johnny go toe-to-toe with other strong actors, but in most other respects, Black Mass is his film and ticket to a Best Actor nomination. Now an ambitious but not overly bright FBI agent, Connolly persuades Whitey to become an informant against the Italian mobsters running northern Boston. An inevitable question is how “Black Mass” compares with “The Departed.” That excellent film, released in 2006 and directed by Martin Scorsese, covered some of the same ground through an ingenious adaptation of an intricate and purely fictional Hong Kong crime thriller, “Infernal Affairs,” that had nothing to do with Bulger or his Boston haunts.

She then disappears from the movie. (Women do that a lot in this movie.) Peter Saarsgard has a high-energy walk-on as a Miami drug addict who makes the mistake of doing business with Bulger, and, like with Johnson, you miss him when he’s gone. And though Jack Nicholson gave a marvelous performance as a fictional version of Whitey Bulger, it was a quintessential Nicholson performance, while Johnny Depp’s work here feels genuinely new. The FBI never seems like a credible threat to Bulger, and, as his childhood friend protecting him from within but feeling increasingly compromised, Edgerton never seems like a worthy enough character to invest much in. I find that when you overrehearse actors, the performances tend to become stale and the actors feel like they have a road map for where the scene is going to go. As a man, that just took me away.” When Bulger killed Flemmi’s stepdaughter Deborah Hussey — she was deemed unreliable — he “looped a rope around her neck, tied a stick to the rope and twisted it until she choked to death.” On a spring day in 1982, while disguised in a “floppy hat and a long-haired wig,” he murdered Edward Brian Halloran and Michael Donahue by spraying the Datsun they were in with gunfire in the parking lot of the restaurant Anthony’s Pier 4.

Whitey successfully cultivated an image as a gentleman criminal: good to his neighborhood, loyal to his accomplices, an abider of the laws of the streets. Characters float in and out of the narrative — there maybe just be too much cast for a story this spare — and it never builds up into the crescendo it needs to. In Scott Cooper’s debut feature, Jeff Bridges is Bad Blake, a ruined legend of a country musician, and Maggie Gyllenhaal is Jean, a single mother who writes about music for a local newspaper. A Boston FBI agent named John Connolly, who had grown up in Southie’s Old Harbor housing projects idolizing him, was the one who protected Whitey for years. Cooper directs with an unerring instinct for intimacy and a flawless sense of proportion, whether in the big moments or the small ones; every performance is measured without seeming to be calculated.

Depp never really digs into what makes Bulger tick, what his motivations might be other than “be a magnetic psychopath,” and thus the movie never propels forward. Christian Bale’s Russell Baze works those of a mill in a Pennsylvania town where they’re still making steel, though not for much longer; heavy industry has been moving to Asia. It’s just a camera pointed at a massive movie star doing another in his series of performance art pieces, and everyone sort of circling around him, partly cheering him on, partly not sure what exactly they’e supposed to do when standing next to him. Casey Affleck’s Rodney Baze, Russell’s younger brother, is back from the furnace of Iraq, and seethingly rageful; at one point he vents his rage in a scene of immense power.

Mumble-mouthing his way from his native Hackney to somewhere near enough Boston Harbor, hand-combing his greasy hair back into place, Winstone nailed a sleazy, murderous heaviness. Eventually, he’d go on TV to talk about the plot to kill Boston Herald columnist Howie Carr — a showy firebrand who’d go after both Whitey and his brother Billy with equal fervor — by exploding a basketball full of C4.

After a report of a Whitey sighting at a showing of The Departed in a San Diego movie theater, authorities actually did search for a time, unfruitfully, in Southern California. William Monahan had adapted the script for The Departed from the Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs,1 which meant large swaths of the real Bulger legend were left untold. That includes arguably the most remarkable part: that, while Whitey was thieving and murdering, his kid brother Billy was rising to become Boston’s greatest political operator. Joel Edgerton plays John Connolly; Jesse Plemons — yes, Landry from Friday Night Lights — plays Kevin Weeks; and Rory Cochrane — yes, Lucas from Empire Records! — plays Stephen “The Rifleman” Flemmi. The trailers downplay Cumberbatch’s role, but considering the prominence of the actor, the peculiar relationship of Billy and his big brother Whitey should finally get some screen time.

As Kevin Cullen and Shelley Murphy write in their book Whitey Bulger: America’s Most Wanted Gangster and the Manhunt That Brought Him to Justice, “Gangsters with scruples don’t kill women, and Whitey insists to this day that he did not kill Debra Davis2 or Deborah Hussey. He says the last years of his life will be spent clearing his name, not just in the killing of the women but in this whole matter of his being an FBI informant. ‘I never put one person in prison in my whole life,’ he claimed in a letter to a friend.” Ultimately, Whitey chose not to testify at his own trial, harrumphing instead that he’d been screwed out of a fair trial. At that point, Michael Donahue’s widow, Patricia, stood up and yelled three simple words: “You’re a coward.” After Whitey was captured, the Boston Globe went to Southie to shoot a man-on-the-street reaction video.

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