Monday, September 21, 2015

Black Mass / *** (R)

James ‘Whitey’ Bulger: Johnny Depp
John Connolly: Joel Edgerton
Billy Bulger: Benedict Cumberbatch
Steve Flemmi: Rory Cochrane
Kevin Weeks: Jesse Plemons
Marianne Connolly: Julianne Nicholson
John Morris: David Harbour
Lindsey Cyr: Dakota Johnson
John Martorano: W. Earl Brown
Charles McGuire: Kevin Bacon
Brian Halloran: Peter Sarsgaard
Robert Fitzpatrick: Adam Scott
Fred Wyshak: Corey Stoll

Warner Bros. Pictures presents a film directed by Scott Cooper. Written by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth. Based on the book by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill. Running time: 122 min. Rated R (for brutal violence, language throughout, some sexual references and brief drug use).

Johnny Depp delivers a speech about keeping secrets as notorious Boston gangster James ‘Whitey’ Bulger to an FBI agent with whom he’s in collusion in the new movie “Black Mass” during which he announces his performance as one of the great monsters of the screen. Immediately following that scene he has a conversation with another FBI agent’s wife that plays like a predator who captures his prey and instead of killing it, shows it just how much he can play with it instead. Scott Cooper’s crime film is an interesting study in this real life figure who surely couldn’t have achieved what he did without the help of the FBI, using their desire to control the Italian mafia in Boston to his advantage in becoming the biggest crime kingpin in South Boston.

Actors often will find some sort of animal to identify their characters with when playing a villain. I wonder if Depp’s might’ve been a snake for this character. Like the skin of a snake his Bulger is smooth as he slides through the criminal underbelly of South Boston. However, if you run your hand across that skin in the wrong direction it is rough and dangerous. The blue contacts he wears to match his eyes to the real Whitey Bulger add to the snake effect.

Cooper’s film picks up well after Bulger’s turns in Leavenworth and Alcatraz. Home in Boston, he’s a low level street thug who sees an opportunity when fellow Southie FBI Agent John Connolly comes to him with an arrangement offer. He provides the FBI information about the Angiulo crime family, and the FBI provides immunity. Whitey first turns Connolly down, feeling that he would be an informant and a rat. He refuses to become an informant, but when Connolly frames the offer as an “alliance,” Whitey decides the benefits outweigh any code of honor he might have as a criminal. The two become the chief benefactors of Whitey’s underhanded war against the Mafioso who control Northern Boston. Connolly becomes the agent who brings down the Boston Mafia, while Whitey carves himself the greatest crime empire Boston has ever seen.

While Cooper lays out this story, he’s more interested in who these men are than the details of their dealings. Depp’s Whitey is presented as a fairly complicated villain, who respects loyalty, but is willing to cut any allegiance for the slightest suspicion of possible threat. His dialogue seems to bubble up from a deep dark core. There are several scenes like the one I described in this review’s introduction, where he speaks to one character with focus and a buried menace beneath his steady surface. One involves his own son, whom he asks about a schoolyard fight. He quite bluntly tells the child that hitting the other kid wasn’t what he did wrong, but rather hitting the kid when others could see it was his error.

His chief officers are Steve Flemmi (Rory Cochrane) and Kevin Weeks (Jesse Plemons). Weeks is a loyal thug, while Flemmi often tries to act as Whitey’s conscience of sorts. Their wet work man, John Martorano, is provided with more eye dialogue for actor W. Earl Brown than spoken. These men are merely Whitey’s trust worthy tools.

Joel Edgerton (“The Gift”) presents another type of criminal entirely with his Agent Connolly. He begins his path possibly believing what he does is just. At some point he clearly accepts that his loyalty to his Southie brethren is more important that justice, but his intentions are less clear. He brings down another agent with him in John Morris (David Harbour), who is a coward without the spine to stand up against his pier. Connolly’s story is sadder than Bulger’s, as he gives up parts of what he is to Bulger’s manipulations and his own pride. Edgerton seems to play down Connolly’s intelligence to some degree. Not that he isn’t a smart man, but Connolly is blind to the inevitable outcome of his choices. He tries to play a game for which he is unprepared in strategy and resources. He plays the pieces without being able to see all of them, a mistake Whitey would never make.

A third player in Cooper’s focused study of the Bulger effect is Whitey’s own younger brother, Senator Billy Bulger, played by Benedict Cumberbatch. Obviously Billy is a very smart man. Cooper mostly uses Billy to provide counterpoint to Connolly, a loyalty in blood rather than upbringing. Billy is just a smart as Whitey. As a respected politician he publicly distances himself from his well-known criminal brother, but their bond is family. The most telling scene about Billy is one in which Connolly appeals to him for some of his influence when it becomes clear that his superiors smell a rat in the Bureau. Cumberbatch makes it clear that Billy is playing a delicate game and although he has helped Connolly facilitate his alliance with Whitey to a degree, his part has always been about his brother and never about Connolly’s wishes and desires.

Cooper hasn’t spun together an incredibly tight tale of what went down under Whitey’s reign over Boston. The movie is uneven in pace and focus. His casting, however, gets him most of the way toward a compelling crime film. The nefarious nature of Whitey Bulger himself also provides this story with a gripping central character. What “Black Mass” lacks in cohesiveness, Depp makes up for in one of his greatest performances. Depp makes you shiver that such a man could exist.

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