Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Black Mass (***)

Directed by Scott Cooper


The idea of casting Johnny Depp as James "Whitey" Bulger is comical. I've seen Black Mass and I've seen how good Depp is in it, and I still think it's comical. It's brazen stunt casting, but this film shows you why you attempt it in the first place. Casting a formerly brilliant performer in a role that he should have nothing to do with might just create the impossible: it might get him to try. Bulger is a captivating figure; a despicable criminal responsible for multiple murders, amongst many other crimes. In Black Mass, we see him as an overwhelming figure, not so much of an anti-hero but an anti-god. Given an opportunity by the FBI to take down opposing crime organizations in South Boston, Bulger squeezed every ounce of federal help he could get, informing on his enemies and only making himself a stronger and more menacing presence in the process. When it was all said and done, Bulger abandoned all his partners. Most of them went to jail, and told the story that eventually became the book version of Black Mass. The film version is a flash edit. It's a greatest hits collection, but it understands its purpose. Characters like Bulger do not rise amongst the ranks as quickly as he did without a little bit of intelligence and a lot of charm. This is where employing Depp really pays off, as the actor recreates the notorious criminal with frightening alacrity.

The Whitey Bulger story is well-known, a well-connected Irish gangster working out of South Boston with a best friend working in the FBI and a brother in the Senate. When we meet Jimmy (he prefers that to Whitey), he's sitting in a bar, stewing as he watches one of his hired hands John Martorano (W. Earl Brown) dig his fingers through a bowl of bar nuts. It's 1985, his business is small time, still working beneath the monolithic strength of the Italian Mafia. He's already done hard time in Alcatraz and Leavenworth, and has been released primed to both avoid future prison time and to become more powerful than ever before. Jimmy's brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a popular Massachusetts senator, perhaps the most influential politician in the state - Billy is aware of Jimmy's behavior, but has a sharp skill for staying out of it; the two brothers respect their separate paths. Jimmy's famed Winter Hill Gang doesn't truly gain power until the arrival of FBI agent John Connelly (Joel Edgerton), a boyhood friend of Billy's with a lifetime of respect for Jimmy. John finagles a meeting with Jimmy and explains simply: if you become an informant, we can offer protection. Known for his murderous feelings towards rats, Jimmy instead decides to think of his alliance with the FBI as a business decision. With him giving information about his strictest competition, the powerful Angiulo brothers, not only is he able to weaken their stance, but with the FBI's protection, he'll be able to take the head seat himself. And that's exactly how events play out.

John's bosses, Charles McGuire (Kevin Bacon) and Robert Fitzpatrick (Adam Scott), are both weary of the known criminal Whitey Bulger, and decide to take him on as an informant as long as Jimmy agrees to not sell drugs and no killing. Jimmy and the Winter Hill Gang don't wait long before breaking these rules. Within his crew is the cold-blooded killing machine Martorano, the burly brute Kevin Weeks (Jesse Plemons), and his closest confidante Stephen Flemmi (Rory Cochrane). Together, with the help of the FBI, the Winter Hill Gang go from small time to kingpins. Despite the worries from McGuire and Fitzpatrick, John continues to tout Jimmy's place as a valued informant, all the while receiving numerous perks from Jimmy in the boys in the form of new clothes, new jewelry, but mostly just cash. Personal tragedies befall Jimmy, first the death of his son and then his mother, and his already violent temperament is stirred further, his urge to murder goes from businesslike to pathological. When Jimmy gets connections with the popular South Florida gambling sport Jai-Alai, the entire transaction ends in a bloody mess when the organization is sold to a clean-living man who's interested in cleaning up any wrongdoing. It's a crescendo which proves that Bulger has absolutely no interesting in even attempting the image of legitimacy. He has become the monster the FBI had hoped to stop.

Black Mass is not a gritty attempt to actualize the life of Bulger. I've never read the book by Dick Lehr and Gerard K. O'Neill, but I've seen it's thickness and it's hard to believe that the story can be successfully told in two hours. What Mass and its director, Scott Cooper, are instead going for is a different, more populist kind of gangster film. It doesn't reach for the Victorian melodrama of Francis Coppola's The Godfather, but instead the loose, low-character punchiness of Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas. Like many Goodfellas knock-offs (and there are probably more of those than Godfather knock-offs), it lacks Scorsese's perversion - the legendary filmmaker never seemed to mind conveying that he enjoyed the sadism that came with the violence in his films - and it doesn't even come close to mirroring Scorsese's cinematic skill. Black Mass's most accurate comp is Ridley Scott's American Gangster, a film both polished and ugly, utterly obsessed with its despicable lead character. Black Mass isn't as nauseatingly self-righteous as Gangster, nor does it lionize it's lead criminal to such an offensive level (Gangster's canonization of criminal/murderer Frank Lucas is beyond bad taste, it's irresponsible). Many films try to process the bleak comedy that Scorsese produced in Goodfellas, and Black Mass is one of the better attempts.

Johnny Depp had fallen so deep inside the black hole of Tim Burton's hair-and-make-up horror shows it was starting to become difficult to remember when their collaborations were amongst the more exciting in Hollywood - by 2012's Dark Shadows, it was clear that their work together had become mutual detrimental. Depp hasn't worked with Burton since that film, but the failure of films like Transcendence and Mortdecai had led many to write obituaries on the three-time Oscar nominee's career. Of course, Depp is seldom better than when he's dolled up in make-up and made to look separate from his infamous beauty. As Bulger, he's encased in some facial prosthetics that make him occasionally look like a character from The Polar Express. The effects are striking, occasionally distracting, but you can get over them when you're left with Depp's performance which is harsh, unforgiving and possessing some of the fierceness that was present in the actor's more subversive performances of the 1990's. Black Mass falls just short of trying to humanize Bulger - after all, who could humanize that monster? - but Depp gives the part some real feeling. The film's script (by Jez Butterworth and Mark Mallouk) doesn't shy away from the more horrific details of Bulger's crimes, but it's still hard for me to deny that I was sucked in by Depp. I wanted to keep watching this man commit these terrible crimes. I suddenly understand what it must have been like to watch James Gandolfini in The Sopranos.

The Boston accents spread throughout the film are a bit of an adventure. There's the Englishman Benedict Cumberbatch who lowers his voice to a brooding grumble, and then the Australian Joel Edgerton who overdoes it so much that it becomes quite easy to hate the sleazy John Connelly (Connelly is a more villainized figure in the film than Bulger is). These Boston films are interesting in their commitment to this accent. There's not a single Massachusetts-raised person in Boston who doesn't speak like Casey Affleck in Good Will Hunting? This is Scott Cooper's third film, after the Jeff Bridges Oscar-winner Crazy Heart and 2013's Out of the Furnace. His interests are serious but his taste is very broad; I could see why a studio would want him to direct a film like this. There's a certain kind of shameless derivativeness that leaks throughout this film, the kind of style-borrowing that comes emboldened by the support of several producers. Black Mass is directed with a stern alertness though, it's filmmaking at a level slightly above simple competence. What Cooper does show is that he does have a lot of interest in performances. That he awoke Depp from his decade-long coma is a testament in itself, but he winds this story throughout the ensemble cast with some panache. There's work to be proud of here. Black Mass isn't aspiring to be a generational gangster film, but instead an entertainment, and as of right now that's the best of what Cooper has to offer.

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