Sunday, September 20, 2015

"Black Mass" (2015)

Starring Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton and Benedict Cumberbatch
Written by Jez Butterworth and Mark Mallouk
Directed by Scott Cooper
Rated R — Violence, language
Running Time: 122 Minutes
Trailer

In 1975, FBI Special Agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) moves back to his hometown in South Boston and joins an anti-mafia task force whose sole purpose is to bring down the Italian crime families controlling the North End. Connolly, realizing that standard FBI procedure isn't working, comes up with a bold plan: strike a deal with the Italians' biggest rival, Southie's Winter Hill Gang. Leading the gang is a cold-hearted bastard named Jimmy "Whitey" Bulger, whom Connolly knew as a kid. But how to reach him?

Bulger's younger brother, Billy, is now a state senator, and puts Connolly in touch with Jimmy. And a devil's deal is born. Over the next twenty years, Bulger rises to power in Boston and even expands his business into Miami. He's responsible for drugs and murders and who knows what else in Boston. And all the while, Connolly protects him from within the FBI, trying to claim that the good they're doing outweighs the evils of letting "Whitey" run roughshod over the city.

Connolly's mistake will ruin careers, end lives and leave a black mark on the FBI for decades to come.

In 2014, before moving to the small community of Brooklyn, New York, I worked for a small newspaper in the city of Lynn, Massachusetts. For several weeks, the area surrounding our office was transformed into various locations standing in for South Boston, including a police station, a Red Line T stop and the route of a 1981 St. Patrick's Day Parade.

Johnny Depp's Whitey Bulger movie was coming to town. When we asked one of the location managers why they chose Lynn to stand in for Southie, we were told it was because Lynn had done such a great job maintaining its 1970s aesthetic. Ouch.

But, it was, in a word, fascinating.

That's the same word I can use to describe "Black Mass" as a whole. It's fascinating. Is it entertaining? From start to finish. Is it impeccably produced? For sure. Is it full of amazing performances? Definitely.

Is it good? That's a harder question to answer. Part of the problem is that while the film sticks to exploring the years between 1975 when Bulger begins his "alliance" with Connolly to 1995 when he flees Boston, that mostly means there's very little payoff for much of what we're watching. Additionally, the script glosses over important developments and instead presents them as quick exposition. It feels like the filmmakers got so involved in just letting these actors get up on screen and inhabit their characters that they forgot they were supposed to be telling a story.

A lot happens in "Black Mass," but it's sort of difficult to parse what it all means. Things just move along until Bulger is outed by the Boston Globe, and then he skips town. The ultimate fates of the other characters are shown to us via on-screen text. It's an abrupt and unsatisfactory ending, especially since there's actually another two decades worth of story — some of which was actually filmed. Actress Sienna Miller shot scenes as Bulger's longtime girlfriend Catherine Greig, but all of those scenes (and, indeed any mention of Greig whatsoever) are missing from the film. That leaves a huge and important chunk of Bulger's story on the cutting room floor, and in a narrative sense, kind of hobbles his character.

In the early part of the film, there are several scenes involving Bulger's ex-girlfriend Lindsey Cyr (Dakota Johnson) and their son that show a fascinating (that word again) other side to Bulger as a father and family man... in his own way. A tiny bit of human emotion sneaks through his cold exterior, but even his interactions with his own son have a weird darkness to them that's utterly engrossing. But any sense of Bulger as a complex person disappears in the second half of the film, and he's just pure gangster. It makes him almost more of a  force of nature than a man, like the shark in "Jaws" or Heath Ledger's Joker in "The Dark Knight." But it's the result of the film losing something rather than seeming to be by design. The script posits that this is on purpose, that "Jimmy was never the same" after the deaths of his mother and his son, but the existence of Greig in the real-life story puts another spin on it that we don't get to see here.

Additionally, the FBI's discovery that Bulger has been playing them is handled in an abrupt and abbreviated manner, as though the filmmakers said, "Oh, crap, we have to end this" and just ended it. The film is positively littered with moments like that, where the plot surges forward because it has to and we realize that while we love all the scenes we just watched, they didn't really mean all that much.

Johnny Depp is fantastic as Bulger. He gives one of the most menacing gangster performances in a long time. In one scene, under the guise of concern for Connolly's wife Marianne (Julianne Nicholson), Bulger puts his hand on her neck and growls, "I don't feel any swollen glands there." It's a positively horrifying moment, with Depp coldly intoning, "It'd be a fuckin' tragedy if anything happened to you" as he heads back downstairs. And the film is loaded with incredibly disturbing moments like this. It reminds us that while Depp has spent the last decade or so disappearing into various cartoon characters, the reason he's able to do so is because he's a master at letting the mask take him somewhere.

The rest of the cast is all up for it, too. If there's anyone who's up to standing next to Depp in this one, it's Joel Edgerton, whose Connolly is basically perfect. In fact, that's one thing I have to say straight out: I love "The Departed," but the accents in that movie are atrocious. "Black Mass" on the other hand, fares much better. Even British Benedict Cumberbatch, standing probably ten inches taller than the real Billy Bulger, nails it. (Related side note, director Scott Cooper doesn't have Martin Scorsese's ear for period rock music... but then, who does?)

Other members of Bulger's gang, including Steve "The Rifleman" Flemmi (Rory Cochrane) and Kevin Weeks (a chubbed-up Jesse Plemmons, looking for all the world like a beat-to-shit Matt Damon with marbles in his mouth) have smaller roles but are just as good. We get to see these two men give testimony to the FBI after their arrests, mostly shot in tight closeup, which is an effect that works really well.

If only it felt more focused in the progression of its story and giving us a fuller and more satisfying ending, and a fuller and more satisfying arc for Bulger, "Black Mass" would be a surefire winner. As is, it's mostly there, but stumbles across the finish line. The sometimes haphazard-feeling script fails the amazing performances that are clearly holding it up.