The Watchers

The Watchers

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Review: Black Mass (UK Cert 15)

In the 1970s, James 'Whitey' Bulger was one of the most powerful and dangerous mobsters in America. He controlled almost all organised crime in South Boston and, in an attempt to eliminate competition from the Italian mob, became an informant for an old friend, John Connolly, who was working for the FBI. This forms the central crux of Black Mass, a gritty, brutal crime drama directed by Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart, Out Of The Furnace) and starring Johnny Depp as Bulger.

Depp has, for a long time, played very broad characters or even caricatures, hidden under tics and quirks. His performance as Bulger is a very different beast altogether. Bulger is a controlling, vicious, violent psychopath, utterly ruthless and not afraid to get his hands dirty. He barely raises his voice above a gravelly rumble but is utterly in control. There's a scene at a dinner table where Bulger goes from convivial to utterly sinister and then back to cheerful bonhomie, to the shock and discomfort of everyone else round the table. It's one of Depp's strongest performances of the last decade.

Joel Edgerton plays FBI agent Connolly, a Southie boy done good. Initially an honest man, his own morals become compromised in his dealings with Bulger. In some ways, it's reminiscent of Leonardo DiCaprio in The Departed and Connolly becomes more and more frantic to keep things from falling apart and to keep his boss (a steely Kevin Bacon) from pulling the plug. It's a decent performance by Edgerton, albeit lacking something of the spark that Depp has.

Benedict Cumberbatch pulls off a convincing Boston accent to play Senator William 'Billy' Bulger, Whitey's brother and old friend of Connolly. The senator turns a blind eye to his brother's criminal ways and keeps his two worlds separate. David Harbour and Corey Stoll impress as a corrupt FBI agent and a bulldog US attorney respectively, with Stoll only introduced late in the day as the net starts to close on Bulger. 

As you can imagine, this is a vividly macho film with the female characters getting particularly short-changed; Dakota Johnson makes an early appearance as the mother of Bulger's son, but soon gets sidelined, while Julianne Nicholson has a few potent scenes as Connolly's wife Marianne, managing to imbue what could have just been a cardboard cut-out nagging wife with a bit of life. Juno Temple's screen time is pretty short and only seems included to show just how ruthless Bulger could be. This is very much a man's world.

It's an unrelentingly violent film too, with brains being splattered against windshields and unfortunate snitches garrotted left, right and centre. There's no glamour to the gore, it's not beautifully or artistically shot (the same can be said for the whole film actually; it's a gritty, downlow kind of film). It's a fact of the lives that Bulger and his associates lead. 

It's a truly engrossing film, which grabs you from the get-go. It's a long film as well (over 2 hours) but doesn't feel like it. A gripping and absorbing crime thriller.

Black Mass is on general release from 25th November.

Rating: 4 out of 5


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