Black Mass

January 19, 2016


Kids from Southie graduate from playing cops and robbers to actually becoming them in no time at all. The ties that remain is what frames Black Mass, the true story of James ‘Whitey’ Bulger, a real life deranged criminal who used his cover as an FBI informant to ruthlessly wipe out the competition, while also doling out the most gruesome justice to those who cross him.

The film exhumes the facts of this ‘hot off the presses’ case and presents them through the testimony of his henchmen, who hang Whitey out to dry when he does a bunk. Showing how he exploited the hubris of John Connolly, an ambitious FBI agent who owes him a solid from their youth, the movie charts his rise as one of Americas most notorious crime bosses.

With a brother whose a state senator, and a back-story that includes being experimented on by Army scientists while imprisoned in Alcatraz, it’s easy to see what attracted Director Scott Cooper to the story. The sociopathic cunning, the psychopathic violence and the ruthless bonds that weave the destitute Boston community together are spoiling for dramatic exploitation. While the American tendency to create further chaos out of existing calamity has never been more pertinent.

But it cries out for a filmmaker with a less derivative touch. Black Mass is a style and substance vacuum, dripping in the lint of its gangster cannon forefathers. Montage is dispatched after montage, with lots of shots of Whitey and his crew driving around the back streets of Boston, sitting around bars and dancing with pretty ladies as the FBI squabble and squander away any opportunity to make things right.

Cooper is so enthrall to his leading man that he allows him slouch vampiric-ally around, detached from the world he rules, looking like his Dark Shadows character after getting caught in a heavy down pour. It’s another one of Depp’s ‘stunning’ transformations, where imitation substitutes character. 

Here he burlesques a lobotomised James Cagney, possibly his finest performance of late, though those pickings are cadaverous. Its drained of unnecessary quirk, but its still a triumph of prosthetics over psychology.

He’s surrounded by unremarkable stereotype whose only screen time is to push the plot forward, with no connection being spun for emotional effect. Benedict Cumberbatch continues to plateau performatively as the brother. How their paths merge and submerge is never satisfactorily explored. While Joel Edgerton minces in ‘Bawston’ drag as Connolly. His over the top squawking begs the question…how did his colleagues and superiors not cotton on sooner to what he was up to?

The movie is stuffed with trite ’emotional’ scenes that try to show just why Whitey ended up as detached as he did (the deaths of his son and mother), while the cinematography could wholly be comprised of The Departed out takes, so little original vision is shown in the creation of this world.

Women are strictly drawn from the Madonna/Whore pallet; points of the story are picked of as dispassionately as Whitey picks off his victims, while Cooper leaves us withmore questions than answers. His focus is drawn to the more conventional criminal dynamics instead of ever fleshing out the FBI angle. The whole film feels less like a game of cat and mouse, and more like a greenhouse exhibit.

Black Mass is a movie you might not flick past were to appear on your telly, but its certainly not worth the money you could invest in another film this weekend.

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