Black Mass Review
I've kept tabs on the "Whitey" Bulger story ever since I saw "The Departed." That Scorsese movie had very little to do with Bulger, but Jack Nicholson's character, Frank Costello, was loosely based on Bulger. My "Departed" DVD features documentaries about the real "Whitey" Bulger, a Boston-based criminal who lead the Irish Mob to prominence in the state of Massachusetts. The secret weapon to Bulger's success was his secret alliance with the FBI, as Bulger became an official informant. The deal was Bulger gives the FBI information on the Italian Mafia in Boston, and Bulger is left alone. This lead Bulger to rule the Boston underworld for several decades, until the FBI tried to clean itself up, which lead Bulger to go on the run for sixteen or so years. During that sixteen year absence, "Whitey" Bulger was number two on the FBI's Most Wanted list, loosing the top spot to none other than Osama Bin Laden. Ironically in the same year that Navy Seals killed Bin Laden, Bulger was captured.
Its a fascinating story, a great story for a movie and you can bet that "Black Mass" is fascinating. "Black Mass" almost feels like a time machine of a movie, because every detail, big and little, feels absolutely authentic. Its a story that is brought together by the very best cast of the year so far; Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dakota Johnson, Juno Temple, Kevin Bacon, Peter Sarsgaard, Corey Stoll, Adam Scott, Rory Cochrane, Jesse Clemons...like I said, an impeccably casted movie, whose participants throw themselves at their material. Anybody who is fan of gangster movies needs to find the best screen possible, sit back and enjoy.
The film begins with Kevin Weeks (Clemons) sitting at a interrogation table, with a recorder in the middle. He's being asked about Bulger, and he's willing to tell the whole, truthful story, just as long as its not on record that he is a rat. While a familiar motif in gangster movies, "Black Mass" is all about rats. No matter how much organized crime prides itself on loyalty, when facing a hefty prison sentence, these guys will say anything. It doesn't matter what group you look at, immunity talks and "Black Mass" embraces that as its theme. The movie is all about what we tell people and what we choose to hide and how that can make or break us as human beings. Much of the film is told through flashbacks, of Weeks, of Steven Flemmi (Cochrane), the right-hand man of Bulger (Depp) and of Martoano (W. Earl Brown) the reliable trigger man.
They tell the story of how James "Whitey" Bulger went from small time criminal to the biggest kingpin in Boston. Bulger used his relationship with lifelong friend John Connolly (Edgerton), who became a high-ranking FBI agent, and the movie details their alliance. Bulger also had the help of his younger brother Billy Bulger (Cumberbatch), who was the most powerful politician in the state at the time. Through Whitey's alliance with the FBI, he rose to power quickly.
Johnny Depp has recently pegged himself as the goofy guy. That has always disappointed me because I think a truly magnificent actor is buried inside of him, an actor he only lets out to play every once in awhile. His obsessive need to be the goofball has lead to an ultimately underwhelming career, with beams of light showing here and there. Depp allows all of his greatest strengths come pouring out of him, and the result is one of the finest performances (if not, the finest) he's ever given. I know its early in the Oscar race, but Depp should at least get nominated for Best Actor and he's got all the potential to win it. The way he talks his different, the way he walks his different, his make-up and hair is all top-notch. Oh, and those teeth, that is the material of nightmares.
In fact, all the actors in this deliver incredible performances. If this is your first Benedict Cumberbatch movie, then it will surprise you to learn that he's British, but he will make you believe he's from Southie. I am now so excited to see him as Dr. Strange next winter! Joel Edgerton also gives a career-high performance as Connolly, a quasi- Henry Hill of the movie. I have liked Edgerton nearly his whole career, but much like Depp, he's never been this alive onscreen before and it is awfully bracing. I think I could write an entire book on the merits delivered by Bacon, Cochrane, Clemons, Johnson, Temple, Stoll and especially Sarsgaard, but that could take all day. This was willfully picked cast and each actor brought their A-game.
As far as gangster movies go, "Black Mass" goes through a lot of the motions. There is a flashback voice-over here, a gruesome killing there, and some really gritty talk over there. As far gangster movies are concerned, "Black Mass" feels like another one in the herd, instead of something that stands separate. There isn't anything about this movie that particularly surprised me, and there isn't much that I would say shocked me. Don't get me wrong, the film is entertainment of the highest order, but if you have seen lots of movies in this particular genre, you'll see that there isn't much that separates "Black Mass" from other gangster movies.
Despite its familiarity, the performance by Depp is enough to buy this for home viewing. The look and grandeur of this movie is a marvel to look at and its always awesome to watch great actors throw down. I can only hope that this is Depp's future, because this is the Depp I really want to see, the Depp I think we all secretly want to see. I know I will watch this one many times in my future, just because its a such a fine example of great acting.
FINAL GRADE: B+