Review: ‘Black Mass’ tells only part of Whitey Bulger’s story

18 Sep 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘Black Mass’ movie review: An absorbing film lacking emotional core.

Currently a permanent guest of the federal government after more than 20 years as a fugitive, James J. Black Mass, directed by Scott Cooper, and written by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth, tells the rise and fall of James “Whitey” Bulger, who along with his notorious crew, the Winter Hill Gang, and some help from the FBI, ran the streets of Boston in the 1970s and 80s.

“Southie kids went from playing cops and robbers in the playground to doing it for real on the streets,” says Kevin Weeks (Jesse Plemons), “and like on the playground sometimes it was hard to tell who was who.” It’s not that hard, really.Cast: Johnny Depp, Benedict Cumberbatch, Joel Edgerton, Jesse Plemons, Sienna Miller, Dakota Johnson, Rory Cochrane, Kevin Bacon, Director: Scott Cooper What I like about Johnny Depp is that, with every act of his, he transcends as an actor. He surprises you by eerily getting into the skin of the character with his demeanour and various unconventional get-ups and makes you believe that he is the character he plays. His first breakout film role was “Edward Scissorhands,” letting him act under severe white makeup, a shock of unruly black hair and a patchwork of scars.

The story of Jimmy ‘Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp), the crime lord-turned-FBI-informant who ruled South Boston and was the inspiration for Jack Nicholson’s character in “The Departed,” is populated by bad men who do terrible things. He also enjoyed a cozy relationship with the local office of the FBI, which turned a blind eye to his crimes in exchange for information about the activities of his rivals. Billy Bulger, Whitey’s younger brother, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, sat as the president of the Massachusetts senate for 18 years, the longest in the state’s history. The fact-based crime drama “Black Mass” attempts to answer the question of how a bad guy got to be so bad while the good guys stood back and watched. That’s Hollywood, right? “Black Mass” is not a chick flick, obviously, but all films need certain chick elements to succeed. “Black Mass” picked B: a child, Whitey’s son, Douglas, by his girlfriend.

He was a government informer who meted out lethal punishment to suspected rats; a remorseless killer viewed as a folk hero by some of his fellow citizens; a sentimental son of South Boston who brought drugs into his own neighborhood, and his story all but begs for a movie. His performance as Bulger, the chilling, psychopathic monster lording over the Boston underworld through intimidation and violence, is his best and most understated in years. They were watching because Bulger (Johnny Depp, in a long-awaited return to form) was also an FBI informant, talked into squealing by childhood friend and now-agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton). When we finished, we all made sure to give them a big round of applause.” Former Mayor Ray Flynn, who was on the set during the filming of that scene, railed against the filmmakers for depicting Southie as a neighborhood full of racists. “The sensational movie scene I saw yesterday did not accurately portray my neighbors or my neighborhood.” he wrote in the Herald at the time. “It looked like the work of moviemakers who came just to get what they wanted, not to understand or tell the truth.

Bulger’s information is used to take down the Boston branch of the Italian Mafia, a move that benefits Connolly’s career and — since the Mob was Bulger’s main competition — Bulger’s seedy businesses. The Departed, Martin Scorsese’s remake of a classic Hong Kong crime film, incorporates aspects of the Whitey Bulger legend. “Whitey,” Joe Berlinger’s solid documentary, looks squarely in the faces of his victims and their families, dispelling some of the aura of gangster romance that always seems to surround white ethnic practitioners of organized crime. Depp is all coiled menace, a dark-eyed malevolent force capable of helping an old neighbourhood woman with her groceries one moment and killing an old friend the next.

He’s unpredictable in the most predictable of ways, but Depp makes sure that Bulger isn’t just an echo of Michael Corleone or Tony Montana by giving him some tender moments with his family, son, mother and brother. Depp plays Bulger with charismatic creepiness, a reminder of the power he displayed as a young actor, before he came to be defined by Jack Sparrow and whatever weirdness Tim Burton thought of. The surrounding ensemble of actors (whose Bahhston accents range from admirable to Mayor Quimby) fill their roles capably, but in the end it’s Bulger’s story and Depp’s film. But the conventions of popular culture, conventions to which Cooper hews with slavish or perhaps unthinking devotion, treat those things with a certain reverence.

Earl Brown, Jesse Plemons and Scott Anderson as Whitey’s inner-circle boys, Peter Sarsgaard as a drug-dealer businessman who has the misfortune of ending up on Whitey’s bad side, David Harbour, Adam Scott and Kevic Bacon as the Federal Agents and Corey Stoll as the federal prosecutor determined to nail Whitey. What “Black Mass” can’t do in its two-hour run time is really examine the complex legal and illegal maneuvering that kept Bulger on the FBI’s books for so long; that story is well told in last year’s documentary “Whitey: United States of America v.

He never mentioned the kid again.” By the way, in the movie, Johnny Martorano has been demoted from Whitey’s real-life partner to an underling, which he wasn’t. Unlike the book Black Mass, where the journalists are the heroes, the film is narrated by former mobster Kevin Weeks as he’s giving information to the feds. What makes the narration appealing is that it directly plunges to the present day without getting into Whitey’s back story or the reason of his incitement into the underworld. I have seen Goodfellas and the Godfather movies more times than I can count, and I’m as susceptible as any other deskbound, conflict-averse fantasist to the visceral appeal of a good gangster movie.

As the assorted bad guys and crooked FBI agents Jesse Plemons, Rory Cochrane, Peter Sarsgaard bring the scuzz, but while this is a very male movie, there are three solid performances from the female cast. While the script tries to give us a panoramic view of the South Boston criminal underworld, it struggles to find something new to say about organised crime and the loyalty between these men.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that if Whitey had ever yelled at Johnny Martorano, about anything, “Black Mass” would have ended at the three-minute mark. As Connolly’s wife Julianne Nicholson brings the right amount of scepticism about being airlifted into a world she doesn’t understand and Juno Temple is heartbreaking as a street waif who makes the mistake of trusting Whitey.

Overall, Scott Cooper’s direction results in a well-made and absorbing film, inundated with appropriate menace, but lacks the emotional core and sociological angle. There is Stephen “The Rifleman” Flemmi (serving a life sentence for 10 murders), John “The Executioner” Martorano (served 14 years for 20), and John Morris, an FBI supervisor who got immunity after testifying against his subordinate, Connolly. (Many believe the DOJ granted him that deal so he wouldn’t testify against their own.) The result is that the narrators are depicted almost as bystanders, swept up in Bulger and Connolly’s power-hungry ambitions. Perhaps given the extensive Hollywood history of on-screen thuggery there aren’t many new ways to present the rise-and-fall story but director Scott Cooper, Depp and cast at least keep it compelling.

The contradiction between this apparent soft side and his general disregard for human life feels less like an insight than like boilerplate, a cliché to set alongside the splattering of brains against car-window glass, the surprise whackings of guys who thought they were on their way to whack other guys, and the invocations of loyalty. His last few films have fizzled at the box office, including big-budget fare like “Dark Shadows” ($79 million) and “The Lone Ranger” ($89 million).

I say this as a former resident of both cities and a longtime fan of the letter R.) The episodic narrative is framed by testimony from some of Jimmy’s former underlings, who turned on him when a new prosecutor (Corey Stoll) came to town. The actor, currently shooting the fifth film in the “Pirates” series, took a break in July to visit Lady Cilento Children’s Hospital in Brisbane, Australia. Earl Brown as the slow-moving hit man John Martorano are all credibly gamy and mean, and the matter-of-factness of their testimony is the best, most honest part of the movie.

The actor, along with “Pirates” co-star Stephen Graham who plays Scrum, spent more than three hours with the children, snapping photos and selfies along the way. We’re in historically masculine genre territory, of course, but this movie’s collection of mothers, wives and mistresses is especially threadbare. Bulger says Jeremiah O’Sullivan, a federal prosecutor and chief of the criminal division when Bulger was still at large, gave him a license to kill. With: Johnny Depp (James “Whitey” Bulger), Joel Edgerton (John Connolly), Benedict Cumberbatch (Billy Bulger), Rory Cochrane (Steve Flemmi), Jesse Plemons (Kevin Weeks), David Harbour (John Morris), Dakota Johnson (Lindsey Cyr), Julianne Nicholson (Marianne Connolly), Kevin Bacon (Charles McGuire), Corey Stoll (Fred Wyshak), Peter Sarsgaard (Brian Halloran), Adam Scott (Robert Fitzpatrick), W. Wolf found that the FBI had in fact given Flemmi partial immunity, though this was later overturned since the appeals court ruled that only prosecutors have the power to grant immunity.

And Wolf concluded: “The FBI’s relationship with Bulger and Flemmi was not an isolated, aberrant occurrence.” It might be tricky to bring up immunity arguments in a movie that doesn’t depict the trials. But O’Sullivan makes only a fleeting appearance, and the possibility that the corruption seeped deeper than two agents, and two brothers, is not raised in the film at all. Unlike a courtroom, the filmmakers did not have to yield to rules about admissibility – which was why it was so depressing that the scene where Halloran pleads to get protection after spilling the beans on Bulger is cut short. A scene like that would have made Black Mass more than a gangster film, it would have given a national audience a glimpse into the saga that haunts Bostonians to this day.

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