Jeepers creepers, where’d you get those peepers
Black Mass follows Whitey Bulger as he climbs his way to the top of the criminal ladder but you can only stay at the top for so long...Johnny Depp has graced our screens for over 30 years and has never been one to shy away from make up or prosthetics to drastically alter his appearance for the role; just cast your mind back to Edward Scissorhands(1990) or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005). It’s usually Tim Burton who’s getting Depp to change the way he looks, but now it’s the turn of director Scott Cooper for his latest film Black Mass. In the 70s and 80s one name was infamous throughout the whole community in south Boston and that name was James ‘Whitey’ Bulger (Johnny Depp). Whitey had served time in Alcatraz and later became head of the Winter Hill gang, which is where Black Mass picks up the story. Whitey’s brother, William ‘Billy’ Bulger (Benedict Cumberbatch), is the complete opposite of Whitey; he's a suited and booted upstanding member of the community who also happens to be the state senator.It’s through Billy that John Connolly (Joel Egerton, The Gift) of the FBI tries to open up a dialogue with Whitey. He figures he’ll play on the fact that as kids all three of them used to be buddies and hang out around the neighbourhood. John and Whitey eventually come to a business agreement which at first seems to be beneficial to them both - John gets information on the Angiulo’s, the Italian-American mafia, and Whitey gets a free pass and is able to pretty much do as he pleases. Of course things cannot remain smooth sailing forever what with John’s boss, Charles McGuire (Kevin Bacon), starting to get impatient with the lack of information provided by Whitey. As the story progresses Whitey’s character shifts between a loving father to son Douglas and son to his own elderly mother to a cold calculated killer.
The use of prosthetics enables Depp to transform his face so that he has receding slicked back sandy hair, a distinguished nose and those haunting blue eyes. With a cast consisting of some big names, Depp is in every way the centre and heart of the film, offering up moments when he’s eerily calm which are contrasted with his lack of remorse when it comes to violence. Depp has managed to harness an even balance of creepiness and charisma for this character - the scene in which Whitey confronts Connolly’s wife about being sick, is enough to make your skin crawl. Whitey’s penchant for proper etiquette adds another dimension to his character, there are rules and proper ways of behaving, and this only works to intensify Whitey’s psychotic nature.
Complimenting Depp’s Whitey is Edgerton’s Connolly who is torn three fold between the glamorous life of criminality, his professional reputation with his boss and his home life with wife Marianne who wants her pen pushing, law abiding husband back. Connolly does come close to stealing the show, as he get drawn into Whitey’s world whilst trying to maintain his respectability in the workplace but he eventually finds himself juggling too many balls at once. Cumberbatch’s performance felt a bit stiff at times, a far cry from the relaxed demeanour of Whitey, but this could be due to the fact that Billy was trying to maintain his family ties as well as his senatorial duties, keeping a certain amount of distance between his world and the illegalities of Whitey’s. Of all the accents employed for the film, Cumberbatch’s was the least believable but it’s not enough to distract from the part he’s playing. There are only really two main women in the film, Connolly’s wife Marianne (Julianne Nicholson) and the mother of Whitey’s son Lindsey (Dakota Johnson, Fifty Shades of Grey). While their roles are somewhat minimal, they both work to bring out the darker sides of the two main characters and through their soft femininity they are the perfect contrasting elements.
Johnny Depp proves he’s able to act the part of a nasty piece of work - and he does it rather well.
If there was any doubt to Cooper’s directing capabilities, Black Mass is sure to put those to bed. While stylistically the films is very simplistic, there are some excellent framing shots which work to show Whitey throughout his different personas. Cooper frequently shoots Whitey (and Connolly later in the film) from behind which works to mask his true feelings and state of mind, adding to his unpredictability. There is one scene filmed inside a night club and Whitey is overseeing everything that is going on, the lights that fall over him make him appear like an otherworldly being, almost devil like which again, is symptomatic of his character. The violence in Black Mass is never over-the-top or unnecessarily gory, which in fact just adds to the sense of menace and brutality.
The one small downside to Black Mass is that it never really showcases the sense of community that south Boston is supposedly notorious for - aside from a brief encounter between Whitey and an elderly lady. Granted, the sense of loyalty is more than present between Whitey and his crew and one could argue that that in itself is a small community. Whitey’s right hand man, Steve Flemmi (Rory Cochrane) is always there to back Whitey up and visa versa. Flemmi keeps to the background throughout the first half of the film, but there is a key moment in which Cochrane's acting is really brought forward and he delivers a great performance. Peter Sarsgaard has a small role but doesn’t let that impact his performance one iota.
Black Mass manages to pack a lot in to its 122 minute running time and covers the key moments within Whitey Bulger’s life along with the people around him and the impact he had on them. It’s an extremely interesting story, and unbelievable to think that it is based on true events! It’s one of those films you leave the cinema thinking so much has just unfolded in front of me, I feel like I need to watch it again in case I missed something - at least that’s how I felt.
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