Thursday, September 24, 2015

Black Mass

A couple of Christmases ago, my sister gave me a movie list book, a book in which you writes lists around certain categories such as your favorite movies and characters you wish you could be friends with. One of the categories was least favorite actors, and it pained me to do it, but one of the names I put was Johnny Depp.

There was a time when Depp was one of the most daring and unique actors in Hollywood. Back in the 90s, he played a wide array of quirky characters in a number of off-beat productions: Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, Fear and Loathing in Los Vegas, What's Eating Gilbert Grape, Donnie Brasco. I can go on. But then the Mouse came calling; a few too many Pirates of the Caribbean movies, lackluster Tim Burton reunions, and lame titles like The Lone Ranger and Mortdecai occurred, and frankly, I started cringing every time I saw a new trailer for a Johnny Depp film. He just seemed to be coasting.

Then I saw a preview for Black Mass (2015) and thought, this looks interesting. Depp wasn't playing a goofy pirate or pale weirdo in some cookie cutter remake. He looked unrecognizable and was playing a character who was completely ruthless, violent, and nasty. I decided to check it out, and you know what, Black Mass is the best thing Depp has done in at least ten years and a welcome return to form for him.

In this based on a true story movie, Depp plays James "Whitey" Bulger, a violent and notorious leader of an Irish-American gang on the south side of Boston. He's approached by a childhood friend turned FBI agent, John Connolly (Joel Egerton), with an offer: become an informant to help bring down the north-side Italian mobsters, and the FBI will look away from Bulger's criminal activities. The deal is made, and with the FBI protection, Whitey ruthlessly expands his criminal enterprise.

Black Mass charts the rise and fall of Bulger, and it is packed with characters and events, so it feels less like a tragedy and more like a chronology. How accurate to the facts of the real-life Bulger and his associates it is, I don't know, but the movie makes for fascinating viewing. Say what you will about the cinematic Bulger, but he is hard to look away from. Depp practically disappears into the part, both because the makeup is uncanny (his eyes are so cold and dead, they're practically vampiric) and the performance is that good. Bulger will beat someone to death with his bare hands or shoot a traitor shot in the head, and he'll dote on his young son, help an elderly neighbor with her groceries, and play cards with his mother.

That's what makes Whitey so interesting: his unpredictability. At one point, Whitey bails out the stepdaughter (Juno Temple) of an underling, Stephen Flemmi, (Rory Cochrane) who got arrested for hooking. Whitey and Stephen take her to an apartment where he tells her they'll be putting her up for a while. She's thankful, eternally grateful, and she swears she didn't tell the police anything about the gang. Whitey is all polite and smiles until he strangles her; the murder occurs mostly off frame, the camera mostly focused on Stephen's face as it happens, the fear and shame we see on it saying it all.

Whitey can explode at anytime, so it's best to remain on his good side. While there's plenty of shootings and murders, Black Mass is not an action movie, but it is bloody and graphic. Whitey and a new recruit beat an associate to death, and it's not pretty. Later, Whitey and his gang lead someone out by the river, and the guy apologizes to Whitey for drunkenly antagonizing him previously; Whitey tells him it's all right, and then the guy is shot in the back of the head and dumped in the river. I've never been to Boston, but the city shown here is one of cold grays, squalor, and rather hopeless looking, a fitting world for these characters.

The film has a running length of two hours and is never boring, but it does feel like more could have been done to enrich the narrative. Director Scott Cooper and screenwriters Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth (going off a book by Dick Lehr and Gerard O'Neil) sometimes resort to telling rather than showing, most notably in the increasingly corrupt and indulgent behavior of Connolly. Egerton plays the part perfectly, and the details about his clothes and other lifestyle perks reflect the characterization perfectly, but while it's understandable his too close for comfort relationship with Whitey would strain his marriage, we don't need his wife to spell it all out for us. Similarly, the scenes of the gang members individually testifying against Whitey throughout the film after the events of the narrative are completely unnecessary.

Likewise, Benedict Cumberbatch plays Whitey's brother Billy, a prominent state politician, but his screen time is so limited, it feels incomplete, more like a cameo. Also, the Italian mobsters who are set up as the initial antagonists are barely seen before they're taken down. Other parts are bit confusing, such as the businessman Whitey has killed after he buys the company the gang was embezzling from; it's not easy to keep track of everyone and what they're doing or why so much time is spent on something that doesn't seem so important in the grand scheme of things.

But my misgivings aside, Black Mass is worth checking out if only for Depp's performance, which is one of the best of his career. It's vastly different from just about anything he's done before, and it's intense and adult. I'll be stunned if come Oscar time he's not nominated for Best Actor.

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