Saturday, October 3, 2015

'Black Mass' review

As far back as I can remember, I've always loved gangster movies.

Okay, maybe not quite as far back as I can remember. I just really wanted to use the Goodfellas line. But it is true that gangster movies hold a special place in my cinematic life. I remember sitting in a hotel lobby when I was 13 years old, watching Scarface and being completely wrapped up in the story. I begged my dad to let me watch the full, unedited versions of Goodfellas and The Godfather for years and he probably got sick of it after a while. Gangster flicks just hold this sort of magic that is hard to explain- the characters on screen are so despicable, but you can't help but get caught up in their world. It's that effortless sympathy that the great filmmakers like DePalma, Scorsese and Coppola generate that has elevated this genre to new heights (although I would argue that Scarface's success lies more in its style than its protagonist's likability).

Black Mass, Scott Cooper's Whitey Bulger epic, is not a great gangster flick. There's so much story to tell and so much unbelievable material that Cooper has a difficult time cutting it down. Reports have said that the original cut was 3 hours long and I believe it- Black Mass is full of subplots, side stories, isolated incidents, loose ends and character twists that all get shoved into this 122 minute flick. But despite those glaring flaws, Black Mass shines as a moody, brutal and ominous crime drama with terrific central performances and a seedy atmosphere. Johnny Depp is brilliantly chilling as Bulger, and every time he popped up on screen, my stomach dropped. He's that terrifying and that good. And while this grimy and dark film won't inspire any smiles upon exiting the theater, Black Mass is a great way to kick off awards season and a good addition to the gangster movie canon.

Whitey Bulger (Johnny Depp) is a mob kingpin trying to expand his empire in his quest to dominate the city of Boston. John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) is an ambitious, fame-seeking FBI agent who wants to nab the Italian mafia. Connolly and Bulger grew up together, and after a lunch meeting with Whitey's Senator brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch), Connolly hatches an idea- Let Bulger run his business, but use his information to get the FBI to take down the Mafia. Both sides come out on the winning side. And with that small start, the FBI enabled Whitey to terrorize the city of Boston for several years, killing anyone who stood in his way for years before the whole thing fell apart.

Told in the aftermath of the downfall of Bulger's organization from the perspective of the three main associates of his organization- Kevin Weeks (Jesse Plemons), John Martorano (W. Earl Brown) and Steve Flemmi (Rory Cochrane)- Black Mass tracks the rise and fall of the gangster, from his relationship with Lindsey Cyr (Dakota Johnson) to the heights of the relationship with the FBI all before his capture in 2011. And although the edges are a little rough, Black Mass is ultimately a very entertaining tale about greed, corruption and the dangers of ambition.

If you're seeing Black Mass and you're not a hardcore movie fan, you're probably seeing it for Johnny Depp's performance. And in that aspect, you won't be disappointed. Depp is absolutely terrifying as Bulger, and the vampiric, devilish comparisons that have been made are quite apt. From the slicked back hair to the icy stare to the piercing eyes, everything about his performance is spot-on. Depp and the filmmakers even slip in a bit of humanity to Bulger, and it makes the character a fascinating enigma. The character might not ever amount to much of an arc (he's a terrible, murderous person at the beginning and a terrible, murderous person at the end), but Depp deserves all of the praise being thrown his way. He's that good.

And the even better news is that the supporting cast is terrific as well. Joel Edgerton almost steals Depp's show as Connolly, the power-hungry agent who destroys his entire life as a result of his deal with Bulger. After his twisty role as Gordo in The Gift, Edgerton is back in his comfort zone a bit with this one, but he's never been better. Rory Cochrane, who most famously played the perpetually stoned Slater in Dazed & Confused, is great as well. Cochrane is an actor who I wish was in more movies, because he's such a good actor and he brings so much to Steve, Bulger's right-hand man. The rest of the actors have roles that amount to little more than cameos, but each of them gets their change to shine. Peter Sarsgaard oozes awkward paranoia as Brian Halloran, Jesse Plemons does solid work as Kevin, and brief appearances by Kevin Bacon, David Harbour, Corey Stoll and Dakota Johnson work very well.

Unfortunately, when I say that most of the actors have what amounts to a brief cameo, it's not necessarily a compliment. Black Mass is a film with a ton of moving parts and that sprawling nature is what makes it a good film, but not a great one. It's not often that I say this about a film, but Black Mass is just too short. With so much rich, compelling material and such well-measured and textured performances, why not go for something truly bold? Despite how good Black Mass is, I think that I'll always be haunted by how good it could have been. It catches its groove quite often and gets flowing, but other subplots feel a little slighted and jumbled. Like many people said with Straight Outta Compton, I almost feel like Black Mass would have work better as a Narcos-type miniseries (terrific show by the way, if you haven't started watching yet). Cooper's direction, the writing and the acting is all flawless, but ultimately, the final ingredient is missing.

While all of this may sound negative, I very much enjoyed this film. I just wish that it had lived up to its full potential. But since this is a positive review, let's focus on the good things, shall we? For one, I love the 1970's noir sensibilities of this film. There's no fun, upbeat twists like in Goodfellas or a classic family story akin to The Godfather. Just brutal, nasty, vicious drama. Set in gritty, rainy alleys, bridge underpasses, dimly lit bars and functionally bland office buildings, Black Mass is beautifully captured by cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi and feels like a film ripped straight out of the 70's.

Scott Cooper also proves himself to be a very strong director with this one, as he's able to tackle a lot of tricky material and make something that really works. His stylistic elements and music choices (there's a good score from Junkie XL, who is having a terrific year when you mix this with Mad Max: Fury Road) aren't too flashy, but they fit with the tough nature of the film. Cooper has made a few well-received films before this (Crazy Heart and Out of the Furnace), and it's clear that he knows what he's doing and will become a directorial talent to watch. He'll tackle something big someday and I have a feeling that it'll work terrifically.

Black Mass may have its failings and it might fall short of gangster classic, but it's a well-executed crime drama that features some of the best performances of the year and a noir feel that truly works. Depp and Edgerton lead the way as Cooper leads us through this epic tale of brutal violence and government corruption (or ineptitude). Anyone looking for the next Scorsese mob story will be sorely disappointed, but audiences with more reasonable expectations will be thrilled and compelled by the story of Bulger and the relationship that changed Boston for years.

THE FINAL GRADE:  B+                                            (7.7/10)

Image Credits: Latin Post, Hollywood Reporter, Variety, The Guardian, Joblo

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