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Movie Review of the Week: “Black Mass”

Movie Review of the Week: “Black Mass”
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With his upturned black leather collar, strangely pale mien and piercing blue eyes with pin-prick pupils, James “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp) looks a lot like Count Dracula. And director Scott Cooper invites the comparison, shooting Depp as a cold, calculating monster about to devour his enemies. It’s a fair analogy as crime lord Bulger was feared and revered on the streets of South Boston in the ‘70s and ‘80s. He was as much of a mythical creature as a vampire or the monster under your bed.

Cooper’s solid, even-keeled drama presents Bulger from his start as a small-time criminal to his rise to vicious crime boss of the Winter Hill Gang.  With his right-hand man Flemmi (Rory Cochrane) and muscle Kevin Weeks (Jesse Plemons), Bulger cuts a familiar cinematic figure, especially resonant in gangster films set or shot in the 1970s.  The drab palate and backgrounds of urban decay further aid the mood of lawless anarchy and corruption. The script by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth (based on the book by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill) paints an expansive picture of the times, and the screen is filled with authentic characters and complex relationships. Yet, the end result is more removed than engaged. Everything and everyone looks and sounds right, so why isn’t this film about one of America’s most colorful gangsters more gripping?

Despite Depp’s chilling appearance and reined-in performance, “Black Mass” is a bit of a slog. From the opening music…deathly somber and portentous…to the inevitable anti-climax of Bulger’s arrest in 2011, Cooper tries hard to present some dramatic tension by providing a foe. If Bulger is the anti-hero of the story, then FBI agent John Connelly (Joel Edgerton) would seem to be the hero no?  Not so. The two men, childhood acquaintances, grew up on the same mean streets of Southie. Both have a sense of loyalty, but neither one has a moral compass. Bulger may take care of his own, but he’ll kill you for a misplaced glance. Connelly forms an “alliance” with Bulger in an effort to bring down the mutual enemy of the Italian mafia, but in doing so becomes Bulger’s pawn in an increasingly dangerous game.

It’s a familiar set-up, with characters we’ve seen before, which shouldn’t matter if we cared about someone on the screen. In “Donnie Brasco” and “The Departed” we had vested interests in characters and feared for their safety. Here, we are presented with a full canvas, yet everything happens at a remove without any of the characters becoming fully flesh and blood. Even Bulger, as played by Depp (sounding like a Ray Liotta/Jack Nicholson hybrid) is representative of the man, rather than the embodiment of him. Early scenes meant to humanize him whiz by without any emotional impact.

The film is so reminiscent of Scorsese that I half expected to hear “Can’t you hear me knocking” on the soundtrack. But Cooper keeps to a moody score rather than period tracks which does nothing to enliven the rote scenes of betrayal, murder and threat.  Benedict Cumberbatch, as Bulger’s upright younger brother (he was a State Senator) is intriguing. How did two siblings, raised in the same home, take such separate paths in life? The script doesn’t focus on this point however, choosing instead to take us ploddingly through the years as Bulger’s and Connelly’s stars rise….and then inevitably dip.

“I thought I could make a difference,” says one guilt-ridden FBI agent of their ploy to manipulate Bulger. It’s a cliché of good intentions, much like this film itself.






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