A series of film reviews and opinion pieces from a film student and all round movie lover! Happy reading!
Directed By: Scott Cooper
Produced By: Scott Cooper, John Lesher, Brian Oliver
Written By: Mark Mallouk, Jez Butterworth
Starring: Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Kevin Bacon
Running Time: 122 Minutes
From the moment the first trailer landed for Black Mass, it was clear the times were a changin’. Johnny Depp has gradually plummeted deeper and deeper into self-parody in the past few years, however there has always been that sliver of hope for the once-versatile talent to recapture his former glory, or even undertake something never before seen.
Not only seeing but hearing Depp in an unfamiliar and bolder role than we have been treated to as of late, Depp is simply transformative as one of Boston’s most infamous and notorious criminals.
Unrecognisable in the best possible way, Depp’s menacing presence is unlike anything we’ve seen from the prosthetic practitioner, and here’s hoping we’re treated to a lot more from this point on.
Perhaps universal wishful thinking spurred him on to break away from the whacky eccentric world of Tim Burton pictures and explore options elsewhere, or maybe it was simply a change of heart for Depp. Whatever the reason, we should be welcoming the true Johnny Depp back to the big screen with open arms and forgiving him for his recent cinematic atrocities.
Black Mass chronicles the story of James “Whitey” Bulger (Depp) and his journey from being an everyday gangster to a fully fleshed crime kingpin within the mean streets of Boston, Massachusetts during the late 1970’s and 80’s. However the primary story at hand focuses on Bulger’s association with the FBI and how an alliance was formed with the goal to eventually take down the Italian mafia.
In an unscrupulous, cutthroat world where you can trust no one, escalating and mounting tension is shown through Black Mass as morality is questioned, loyalties are skewed and certain members of authority cross a threshold into something very, very dangerous.
Politics, media, police, FBI and even family are crucial aspects to this particular portrayal of Bulger; a man who by mere circumstance, served as a nucleus of sorts within Boston, and he’d have it no other way.
Each of the supporting characters has their own uncomfortable connection to Bulger, and this makes certain choices and actions very difficult for them. The web that is spun becomes tangled, particularly when observing the film’s focus on blood being thicker than water.
A slew of familiar faces make up the ensemble cast of Black Mass, most notably of whom include Joel Edgerton, Kevin Bacon, Benedict Cumberbatch and Corey Stoll. Edgerton continues his run of form with yet another compelling and immensely impressive performance, whilst, although performances across the board were solid enough, the talent on show didn’t seem to have as much input as one might have hoped for.
A flaw within the utilisation and even spread of certain talents would sit with the underuse of Cumberbatch’s Billy Bolger. President of the state of Massachusetts for eighteen years, Billy Bolger was an extremely powerful and respected individual who did wonders for the city during this particular era.
The connection between him and his brother James is covered, however it was begging to be explored much further. An opportunity for a significant contrast between these two brothers’ worlds was regrettably missed, which is made even more upsetting as Cumberbatch’s minor involvement within the film would land him a supporting credit at most.
The story is arguably more John Connolly’s than Bulger’s. His personal involvement in the Bulger saga stems back to his childhood, which ultimately creates a delicate and difficult balance for the FBI agent. His ark is significant and far more interesting than the remaining cast members’ (with the debatable exception of Bulger), whilst Egerton’s performance is without a doubt the highlight of the film.
A cardinal sin that many crime thrillers tend to commit extends from the depiction of violence and crime through a glamourised lens. The central antagonists become glorified and larger than life, creating an even greater separation between them and the audience, but more importantly, truth and fiction.
There doesn’t appear to be too much romanticising within Black Mass; it feels raw, grim and hopeless. Although the odd montage sequence showcases some forms of success (if you want to call it that) within the lives of Bulger and his associates, the outlook of the film is pretty bleak for the most part.
The sense of hopelessness is something that many have critiqued within the film. There’s nothing to take from Black Mass as it is dark and lifeless from start to finish. The question is, why is that a problem?
The subject matter is dark, the connected stories aren’t glistening and the tone the film has set from its beginning is anything but jovial. So why should Black Mass feel obligated to include an essence of hope? It’s simply not that kind of film.
Take Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario for example. This was a film that many could only bear once (if that), but is that a problem? No. The subject matter is dark and the atmosphere that lingers and doesn’t relinquish is even darker, however the film is sensational and critically praised.
Black Mass has a peppering of humour, however it’s mostly ironic and is nothing that will erupt an audience into hysterics. One scene in particular sees Bulger, fellow gang member Steve Flemmi, John Connolly and his work colleague at the dinner table. This was the scene used to introduce the world to Bulger in the trailer and sees Bulger ask what the ‘secret recipe’ was for the steak he was drooling over. The pacing of this wonderful scene is almost identical to the iconically improvised “Funny How?” scene from 1990’s Goodfellas, a film Black Mass seems to have borrowed a lot of qualities from.
A quality of gangster films such as Black Mass is their style. There seems to be a desire to make crime thrillers visually satisfying for audiences through lush cinematography, seamless edits and meticulous attention to detail. The reasons behind these approaches are slightly unclear, in fact the beauty of the visuals juxtaposed with the ugliness of the characters and their actions doesn’t seem to match on paper, yet on screen, it works so well…
Black Mass is a beautifully shot picture that doesn’t let anything go to waste within a frame. From symmetry to the balancing of colours in front of the mostly bleak, grey Massachusetts sky, the visuals add a great deal to the story of not only the characters within a city, but the city itself.
It’s been said that the complete truth may or may not be depicted within the film, and certainly when referring to book-to-film adaptations, I’ve had a strong opinion regarding cinema’s ability to interpret the source material however suits best for the particular medium. When creating something biographical, there tend to be some obligations to consider.
Director Scott Cooper is adamant that he has done the research and produced a real-life depiction of events involving Whitey Bulger. He describes however, the elusive truths he was trying to obtain from various people and how that made the process of understanding the situation far more challenging.
He found that certain people said one thing, whilst others said something completely different. Cooper’s end result is impressive and covers a lot of the story, however it leaves the audience with the choice to either research the story further, or make up their own minds regarding certain people and certain ambiguities established within the film.
Although you may not be able to revisit Black Mass in the foreseeable future, it’s not a fault of the film; perhaps it’s the opposite. Cooper’s thrilling, compelling crime biopic has an effect on its audiences and impresses through sensational performances and stunning shot composition.
The haunting, uncomfortable aspects of the film are what will deter audiences returning for a second viewing, however for that reason alone, Cooper has done his job in creating an eerie cinematic depiction of an extremely infamous criminal with an incredible story.
Depp’s transformation is sensational, but what is most refreshing is his choice to play a hardened human being with depth and malice, not a cooky orange-haired lunatic in Wonderland or a creepy plastic madman in a chocolate factory…