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    Black Mass (2015): Movie Review


    "An evocative and powerful story of a gangster kingpin.” 



    After playing various lovable comic roles in a string of fantasy films, Johnny Depp is finally back to serious business. In Scott Cooper’s Black Mass, a gangster biopic based on the 2001 book of the same title by former Boston Globe reporters Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill, the character actor plays as Boston’s top crime boss whose notoriety is only second to Osama Bin Laden in the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list.

    The film begins in 1975 Boston. James “Whitey” Bulger (Depp), with his record of nearly a decade in federal prisons including Alcatraz, is a rising crime kingpin, head of the disreputable Winter Hill Gang, and leading similarly brutish thugs like Stephen “The Rifleman” Flemmi (Rory Cochrane), Johnny Martorano (W. Earl Brown), Kevin Weeks (Jesse Plemons) and Tommy King (Scott Anderson). But Bulger has one sombre problem – the Italian mafia Angiulo family in North Boston whose influence is slowly going South.

    Then an opportunity presents itself via John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), an FBI agent who also grew up in the slums of South Boston and has known Bulger since boyhood. Connolly pursues Bulger to team up with him in bringing down the Angiulo fiefdom. In exchange for providing the FBI with intelligence information, the Bureau will grant Bulger some sort of immunity for his dealings. Through all Bulger’s dirty enterprises which include extortion, drug dealing and murders, FBI seem to turn a blind eye, including even his brother William “Billy” Bulger (Benedict Cumberbatch) who happens to be the Massachusetts State Senate president. However, Bulger’s luck soon changes when a “bulldog” prosecutor, Fred Wyshak (Corey Stoll), moves into the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

    Black Mass feels derivative, probably because there are already dozens of gangster movies such as Francis Ford Coppola’s highly-acclaimed The Godfather trilogy, David Cronenberg’s 2007 multi-awarded Eastern Promises, and Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990) and The Departed (2006). Nothing is really striking about the present film except Johnny Depp’s award-worthy performance and the enigma behind the man he portrays. Presently incarcerated at the United States Penitentiary Coleman II in Sumterville, Florida, Bulger was sentenced to two life terms plus five years for 19 charges of murder, extortion, racketing, selling drugs, and money laundering. It is hard to tell an autobiography so the movie stages imaginative ways to introduce to us this coolly dangerous man.

    The plot is a conglomeration of different events, told by testimonies given by Bulger’s henchmen after their arrest and their leader’s disappearance. Here, we are given understanding of the protag through how he is seen by the people around him. In essence, we do not really see the elements that shape his personality; instead, we see how his psychological and emotional disposition influences his surroundings. He is vicious and unhinged, unmoved by people but cunningly manipulates everyone. Yet, at the early part of the film, he is depicted with little humanity with the death of his six-year-old son, Douglas Cyr (Luke Ryan). Sadly for his wife, Lindsey Cyr (Dakota Johnson), who is partly demonized when she offers to pull the plug off their boy’s life support, she is never seen again through the remainder of the movie.


    The film also veers from the obvious and avoids extremely violent calisthenics. Instead, killings are swift, sharp, elegantly shot, and its degree of savageness is hidden but reflected with the spray of blood, a loud pitiful scream, or the shock and reaction of those who witness them.

    However, Black Mass lacks heart-pounding dramatic tensions. Bulger is a clinical psychopath whose motivations are obvious and readable. Hence, the movie does not surprise. It is also very intermittent, instantly killing intense scenes with sudden brooding scenes.

    At some point, the movie becomes farcical, especially with how the FBI handles Bulger. For an intel force, the FBI seems idiotic when Connolly covers up Bulger’s countless misdeeds and easily convinces his partner agent John Morris (David Harbour) and boss Charles McGuire (Kevin Bacon). Still, this is reality and it is quite discomforting to realize that such corruption happens inside a law-enforcing and peace-keeping institution.


    The biggest achievement of the film is casting a solid assembly of superb actors. Most of them appear for a limited screen time but their moments are ineffaceable and impressive. Edgerton is outstanding as an FBI agent whose professional ethics are tainted with street dealings. It is sad how he degrades without realizing it and only his wife (Julianne Nicholson) takes notice of these subtle changes. Cumberbatch is as good as ever, elegantly portraying a good politician whose oblivious to his brother’s naughty behaviors. While Harbour and Bacon are quite comically pathetic as frustrated FBI agents, Stoll registers as a tough and undeterred federal prosecutor. Peter Sarsgaard, in four remarkable scenes, delivers the pathos of a pathetic druggie businessman. Even Juno Temple, in another prostitute role after Safelight, leaves a touching mark.

    Depp is absolutely the star of the film, giving a hypnotic and refreshing performance, his best in the recent years. With all the elaborate effort of dressing him with latex, contacts and thinning whitish-blond hair, he is convincing, charismatic and at the same frightening as a man who can shake up another with his simple piercing stare or ominous, flamboyant words. This is another scary aspect of the film, that Depp is able to sell Bulger as a mercenary of evil and chaos and make him a cool guy. 

    Black Mass is not inventive or surprising as another gangster movie. But its cast is too powerful and strong that it is a sin to miss it. 


    Production: Cross Creek Pictures 
    Cast: Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Rory Cochrane, Jesse Plemons, W. Earl Brown, David Harbour, Dakota Johnson, Julianne Nicholson, Kevin Bacon, Corey Stoll, Peter Sarsgaard, Adam Scott, Juno Temple, Bill Camp, Mark Mahoney, Brad Carter, Scott Anderson, Lonnie Farmer, Mary Klug, Erica McDermott, Luke Ryan 
    Director: Scott Cooper 
    Screenwriters: Mark Mallouk, Jez Butterworth, based on the book by Dick Lehr, Gerard O'Neill 
    Producers: John Lesher, Brian Oliver, Scott Cooper, Patrick McCormick, Tyler Thompson 
    Executive producers: Brett Ratner, James Packer, Steven Mnuchin, Peter Mallouk, Ray Mallouk, Christopher Woodrow, Brett Granstaff, Gary Granstaff, Phil Hunt, Compton Ross 
    Director of photography: Masanobu Takayanagi 
    Production designer: Stefania Cella 
    Costume designer: Kasia Walicka Maimone 
    Editor: David Rosenbloom 
    Music: Tom Holkenborg

     


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