sat 25/05/2024

Black Mass | reviews, news & interviews

Black Mass

Black Mass

Gruelling Boston crime saga brings out the best of Johnny Depp

Southie rules: Agent Connolly (Joel Edgerton, left) and Whitey Bulger (Johnny Depp)

The city of Boston has been creeping up the charts as a hotbed of cinematic criminality in the last decade. First came Martin Scorsese's Oscar-scooping epic The Departed, then Ben Affleck chipped in with The Town, both movies driven by their portrayal of tightly-knit groups of characters immovably rooted in their native Bostonian soil.

You could almost see Scott Cooper's Black Mass as completing a trilogy. Indeed, its two leading characters, Irish mobster James "Whitey" Bulger and FBI agent John Connolly, are the real-life versions of the Jack Nicholson and Matt Damon roles in The Departed. You can catch occasional glimpses of Nicholson's sardonic malevolence in Johnny Depp's superb portrayal of Bulger, but Depp takes it much further. With a face like a snake that just shed its skin, and eyes that burn like cold blue lasers, Depp's Bulger may be the most repellent and intimidating villain in living memory (Bulger and his crew, below).

The screenplay is based on on a book by a couple of Boston Globe journalists which exposed Bulger's catalogue of racketeering, murder and extortion, and while movies and real life should never be mistaken for one another, Black Mass successfully depicts a seamy, sleazy, blue collar milieu where blood is thicker than water and crime is just what you do to get by. There's an instructive scene where Bulger passes on some hard-earned wisdom to his young son, congratulating him for punching a schoolmate while pointing out that his only error was being seen doing it. "If they didn't see it, it didn't happen," he explains.

The blood ties of South Boston (or "Southie") are the kindling beneath the plot, which starts to smoulder when FBI man Connolly (Joel Edgerton), who has known Bulger since childhood, devises the cunning plan of forming a kind of off-the-books partnership with the gangster. The Feds will protect Bulger, as long as he doesn't go on too many killing sprees, if he provides them with information about other underworld characters, especially the Boston cosa nostra. It's not snitching, Bulger decides, it's business.

Connolly's FBI boss Charles McGuire (Kevin Bacon, pictured left) is deeply sceptical but allows himself to get talked into it by Connolly, who brashly sells himself as a dyed-in-the-wool Southie boy who understands the unwritten codes of Bulger and his Winter Hill Gang. As it transpires, Connolly is little more than a groupie blinded by distorted hero-worship. Bulger cynically strings him along with titbits of often outdated information, while exploiting the FBI's generosity to expand his crime empire into the once-huge jai-alai craze and even shipping guns to the IRA.

Connolly goes steadily native, and the more he kids himself that he's accepted by Bulger's gang, the more he preens and struts and pumps himself up. When his wife Marianne (Julianne Nicholson) starts noticing the way he's been treating himself to flashy suits and gold watches, he's way past the point of no return. Screenwriters Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth also give Nicholson one of the film's creepiest scenes, where Bulger seeks her out in her bedroom and commits a form of psychological rape merely by stroking her face (pictured below).

It's a bleak and blood-soaked tale, but Cooper (veteran of Crazy Heart and the underrated Out of the Furnace) has rounded up a superb cast and mostly gets the best out of them. Edgerton's delusional fall from grace is agonising to watch, while Jesse Plemons and Rory Cochrane are magnetic in utterly contrasting styles as Bulger's henchmen Kevin Weeks and Steve Flemmi. Peter Sarsgaard brilliantly runs with the ball as paranoid, cocaine-crazed Florida hoodlum Brian Halloran, while Corey Stoll brings a steely new-sheriff-in-town mentality as the federal prosecutor who decides it's time to hang Bulger high.

One of the few false notes is struck by Benedict Cumberbatch, oddly miscast as Bulger's younger brother Billy, who was a Democratic Senator and long-standing President of the Massachusetts State Senate. The script tries to make some play with the wildly ill-matched siblings fussing around their dear old mum back home in Southie for Thanksgiving, but Cumberbatch just looks all wrong, and his American accent sounds about 1000 miles adrift (for one thing, he can't do that Boston "ah" sound all the others have obviously been practising like mad).

All in all though, Black Mass moves like a heavyweight, and when Cooper lands his punches they hurt. I can't imagine it's going to do much for the South Boston tourist trade, though.

'Black Mass' depicts a sleazy blue collar milieu where blood is thicker than water and crime is just what you do to get by


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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