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Josh Reviews Black Mass

Black Mass tells the story of Jimmy “Whitey” Bulger, the Boston crime boss who, for twenty years, was allowed to operate and consolidate power in Boston by the local branch of the FBI because of Bulger’s secret role as an FBI informant, helping the FBI work against the Italian mafia.  The film, directed by Scott Cooper and written by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth, is based on the 2001 book Black Mass: The True Story of an Unholy Alliance Between the FBI and the Irish Mob by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill.

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Black Mass is a solid crime flick.  The film follows a fairly familiar rise-and-fall-of-the-criminal story-arc that you will recognize if you’ve ever seen a movie of this type before.  There’s none of the exciting originality found in the work of, say, crime-master Martin Scorsese.  But don’t sell Black Mass short just because it’s not as great as a movie made by one of the most brilliant masters of this genre!  It’s an intelligently made drama/thriller that I enjoyed.

Johnny Depp is in the lead role as Jimmy “Whitey” Bulger, and wow, I had just about given up on Johnny Depp’s ever actually acting in a film again (as opposed to the clownish make-up-laden shenanigans he’s been up to for the past decade or so).  OK, this role is heavily dependent on make-up, too, but still, this feels to me like the first real, honest performance Mr. Depp has given in a long time, and it’s a delight to see.  Jimmy is a monster, but Mr. Depp keeps the performance very restrained and internal.  Just watch his eyes — cold and calculating and hard.  I am happy to say that I have once again enjoyed a Johnny Depp performance.

But what surprised me about the film is that, in the end, it’s not really about Jimmy “Whitey” Bulger at all.  Johnny Depp is great, but Jimmy doesn’t have much of a character arc in the film.  He’s a scary psychopathic bastard when we first meet him, and he’s a scary psychopathic bastard at the end of the movie.  No, the film is really about Jimmy’s childhood friend from Southie, now FBI agent, Jack Connolly, played magnificently by Joel Edgerton.  It’s Jack who is at the heart of the film, coming up with a scheme that he felt would allow him to honor his personal code of loyalty to his friend from the neighborhood while also advancing within the FBI, a scheme that takes him far… until it all falls apart.  Mr. Edgerton is terrific, compelling and horrifying and empathetic all at once.  The film stakes at a clear position that Jack wasn’t a patsy taken advantage of by Jimmy, but rather that the whole scheme was Jack’s right from the beginning.  And yet, the film, and Mr. Edgerton’s performance, leaves room for interpretation for the audience as to whether Jack was actually trying to do good or as to whether he was only in it for himself and his friends all along.  I’m trying to decide if this is a strength or weakness of the film.  On the one hand, I think some clarity on that point would have strengthened the story being told of Jack’s scheme.  On the other hand, I am not opposed to some ambiguity.  Anyways, Mr. Edgerton is great and a lot of fun to watch.  I’ve always enjoyed his work and this performance feels like a big leap forward.

Beyond the strong work of Mr. Depp and Mr. Edgerton, the film boasts a strong ensemble, a great mix of some famous names and a wealth of performers who I’d never heard of before, but who fill out all of the supporting characters with incredible depth and soul.  Kevin Bacon, Adam Scott (sniff, I miss Parks and Rec!), and David Harbour (most recently seen in The Newsroom) are terrific as Jack’s colleagues at the FBI.  Corey Stoll (most recently the villain in Ant-Man) gets to play more noble here as the man who shakes things up at the FBI, eventually leading to the collapse of Jack Connolly’s house of cards.  Peter Sarsgaard adds another twitchy dangerous weirdo to his resume as a drugged-up murderer in Jimmy’s orbit.  Dakota Johnson, Jesse Plemons, Rory Cochrane, Julianne Nicholson, James Russo, Juno Temple, and many others bring the film to life with their work.

Lastly, I should comment on Benedict Cumberbatch who plays Jimmy’s brother, the politician Billy Bulger.  I did not expect to see Benedict Cumberbatch in a Boston crime film, sporting a Bahstahn accent!  Mr. Cumberbatch is solid in the film, though I think the character of Billy is the film’s main weakness.  Mr. Cumberbatch as Billy is in a lot of the film, but at the end I didn’t really have any idea what Billy and Jimmy’s relationship was really all about.  I commented above that I was uncertain about the ambiguity in the depiction of Jack Connolly, but that I could live with it.  But that ambiguity was taken way too far when it came to Billy.  Who is Billy Bulger?  What does he think about his brother?  The film doesn’t give us any insight into that at all.  Perhaps that’s because no one outside of the two Bulger brothers themselves really know the answer.  But in the context of this film and its structure, in which Billy is a major character, it feels like a huge missed opportunity.  Why isn’t the film concerned with that story??

Director Scott Cooper does a good job at the helm, packing the film full of characters and circumstance but always keeping the story-threads clear and easy to follow for the audience, and the narrative moving ahead at a fast pace. He’s put together a very entertaining film, a tough little Boston crime yarn.  This is a crazy true story, and the film does justice to the incredible real-life events upon which it’s based.  There were parts that I wish were stronger.  Then this could have been a classic crime film.  As it is, it’s a much smaller and less ambitious film.  But it’s entertaining, and I’m glad to have seen it.

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