Black Mass fails to innovate mob movie genre

September 24, 2015
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COURTESY OF IM-A-DEPP VIA FANPOP.COM Johnny Depp transforms into gangster “Whitey” Bulger in Black Mass.

BY WILLIAM KIRSCH For The News-Letter

Although Scott Cooper’s newest film Black Mass centers around the infamous Irish-American mobster from South Boston and former Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) most wanted fugitive James “Whitey” Bulger, it would be fairly ambitious to call it a great film. It may not even be a particularly good film.

The movie itself follows Bulger (Johnny Depp) and his involvement with the FBI — the federal organization essentially protected the gangster because of an informant-style relationship that was organized by fellow South Boston native and federal agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton).

Nothing about the film is terribly inventive. In many ways Bulger is a caricature of the American criminal: principled, kind at times, but ultimately ruthless. The movie itself has a lot of the crime drama clichés that can be found in any number of related titles: There are panning shots of dead bodies in cars, close-ups of Bulger in the midst of deep thought and so on. All in all, the film does little to innovate a typical mob movie.

In addition, Cooper attempts to humanize Bulger, although to a such an extent that the gangster probably doesn’t really deserve it. Despite suffering in many ways throughout his life, Bulger made crime his career, displayed sociopathic tendencies and was clearly no stranger to murder.

Nevertheless, this admittedly mediocre film is elevated by one fairly significant thing: Depp’s tremendous portrayal of Bulger. It has been a few years since Johnny Depp has been in anything really worth seeing, but Black Mass is definitely a departure from this recent dry spell.

Depp plays a man barely contained behind his ever-present dark sunglasses, someone still dormant but merely a single spark away from an explosive outburst. Every scene with Bulger in it is pervaded by an intense tension that leaves the viewer wondering just what will happen, and even when the conclusion seems forgone, it’s still shocking.

Every murder and violent assault is made more lurid by Bulger’s constant and smoldering rage. Even Depp’s physical appearance in the movie adds to this overall haunting portrayal. Piercing blue eyes and a skeletal face stretched tight by anger make Bulger seem almost inhuman and accent Depp’s emotional portrayal well.

These elements come together brilliantly in several key scenes including one in which Bulger and his right-hand man Stephen Flemmi (Rory Cochrane) sit down for dinner with federal agents and tentative allies Connolly and John Morris, who was painted as a weak coward through David Harbour’s acting.

Bulger shifts from discussing jovial dinner conversation to harshly questioning Morris’s loyalty. Depp captures the scenes intensity masterfully.

The movie is not without worthy supporting characters either. Dakota Johnson’s short-lived role as Bulger’s wife Lindsey Cyr shines as a result of one scene in which she and her husband have an emotional stand off in a hospital cafeteria.

Edgerton’s Connolly is also well done as he plays a man whose vanity, gullibility and obsession with neighborhood loyalty force him to cross the line between cop and criminal over and over again.

Naturally, it all ends fairly catastrophically for Connolly.

Bulger’s confidants are depicted well by Cochrane (Jesse Plemons), a bouncer-turned-gangster Kevin Weeks and W. Earl Brown, who characterizes hit–man John Martorano as exactly what he is: a cold callous killer.

However, there are some more dubious choices amongst the supporting cast. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Bulger’s brother William Bulger, a prominent Massachusetts politician. Cumberbatch is advertised as a main character but does not actually factor into the movie much, leaving the viewer to wonder at the point of casting such a major actor for a minor role. This is not to say that Cumberbatch performed badly in the film; instead, he just hardly had any presence.

The ensemble cast of federal agents working with Connolly is fairly weak as well; none can be taken particularly seriously in their roles and seem to exist just to compliment Edgerton’s Connolly. Black Mass is far from a perfect movie and is in many ways not particularly unique. That being said, it is absolutely worth seeing just for the sake of watching Johnny Depp change seamlessly into one of the most violent, ruthless, intelligent and ambitious criminals in recent memory.

It is a story that everyone deserves to know because so few really have encountered this true story.

In conclusion, go see Black Mass. Just do not expect The Godfather.

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