Thursday, September 24

REVIEW: Black Mass

Directed by Scott Cooper
2015 Crime Drama
2 hours 2 minutes
From Warner Bros

Johnny Depp
Joel Edgerton
Benedict Cumberbatch
Kevin Bacon
Jesse Plemons
Rory Cochrane
David Harbour
Dakota Johnson
Bill Camp
Peter Sarsgaard
Julianne Nicholson
Juno Temple
Adam Scott

I am not sure I had ever heard of Whitey Bulger, South Boston's most infamous violent criminal, until he was captured in 2011 in a former home town of mine, Santa Monica, California.  From that day on, I checked him out on numerous websites and stayed glued to the news for updates on his life.  When I heard there would be a film made of his life (no surprise there), I couldn't wait.  (Actually I had to wait because I have been on holiday since it opened.)

It's a good film, too.  The story is compelling, to say the least, the writing is first-class, the acting is exuberant.  In fact, it would be hard to fault it, unless, of course, you get upset at hearing F-bombs in nearly every frame and witnessing stomach-crunching violence.  But how can one have a gangster movie without rough language and horrific violence?  Of course I am rather driven to see true stories or those purported to be based on truth.  I confess I couldn't help comparing it to Martin Scorsese's 2006 Oscar-winning The Departed and it stands quite nicely on its own.

James Bulger hated the nickname Whitey and most people called him Jimmy.  He was the vicious leader of an Irish gang known as the Winter Hill Mob.  At the heart of the film is Bulger's cozy relationship with the FBI who wanted him to inform on a rival Italian gang, although Bulger would always deny this.  It would be confirmed by one of his henchman, Kevin Weeks, who would inform on Bulger, leading to his ultimate arrest.  Bulger had served nine years in prison during the 1950s-60s but this was outside of the parameters of the screenplay as is his life after his 2011 arrest.

Bulger had been childhood friends with Boston FBI man John Connelly who turned away from Bulger's activities due to their friendship dating back to childhood and a desire for the goods on the rival gang.  The film looks at their relationship and provides glimpses into the relationships with their women, enemies and a new FBI member who is out to nab Bulger.  Matters were complicated because Bulger's brother Billy was a Massachusetts state senator.

He was ultimately indicted on 19 counts of murder and it feels like we see every one of them.  His schmoozing with the people he intends to murder is intense and their demise downright chilling. 

It's also a damned good cat and mouse game in every sense of the expression... between Bulger and his enemies, Bulger and those closest to him, Bulger and the FBI and within the FBI itself.  

After a series of stupid movies, it's great to see Depp do something worthwhile.  So many of his films over the years have been saturated with quirkiness.  It must be what the public wants.  When he stepped away from the quirky and silly in 1995 and did Nick of Time (a so-so film with a good dramatic performance from him), the public stayed away.  Here he physically looks different (receding hairline, lighter eyes, playing much older) and gives a performance that could garner him an Oscar nomination.  It's said he stayed in character throughout the entire shoot.  He must have been great fun to be around.

Joel Edgerton as Connelly was smashing as well.  A few of the other larger roles were played by Jesse Plemons as Weeks (the film opens with his going public), Rory Cochrane as a fellow criminal who irritates Bulger, and David Harbour as another FBI man who goes along with Connelly in protecting Bulger.  All other roles are rather small and limited to a scene or two.

Actor Scott Cooper is fairly new to film directing, this being his third film.  The first was Crazy Heart (2009), about a down-on-his-luck country musician in a funky relationship, brought an Oscar to Jeff Bridges and a nomination to Maggie Gyllenhaal.  Out of the Furnace, some four years later, took a grim look at a man searching for his missing brother.  Christian Bale and Casey Affleck turned in their usual nicely-measured performances.  I know folks are sentimental about Crazy Heart but Black Mass is clearly Cooper's best directorial effort to date and his best film.

You Depp fans... don't stay away.  Allow him to do some work that will send some accolades his way and make some of them yours.

This was published not on a regular day but as said, I am behind on this one and have another coming tomorrow.  Actually, the true movie season has begun and I have to get to these reviews as soon as I can.  This is a great time for you, yes YOU, to think about getting out to the movies.  Don't wait for someone to join you if most are busy... go by yourself.  Then write and tell me what you thought.

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