Sunday, November 1, 2015

Black Mass

THC finds Johnny Depp annoying in his silly and mannered roles like Pirates of the Caribbean and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory but quite good in more serious work such as Donnie BrascoBlack Mass falls in the latter category.  The story of the rise and fall of Boston mobster Whitey Bulger, whose brother was the most powerful politician in Massachusetts from the mid-1970s through 1990s, along with the rise and fall of those in the Boston office of the FBI who hitched their stars to Whitey's supposed value as an informant and who ended up as his enablers and protectors.

A mutant version of the Bulger story appeared in Martin Scorsese's film The Departed but because that movie was primarily based on the excellent Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs it often "departed" from Bulger story and Jack Nicholson's operatic performance was not based on Whitey (for more read I'm Shipping Up To Boston).

In contrast Black Mass is a straightforward telling of the story from Whitey's rise in the 1970s until he evaded arrest and fled Boston in 1994 remaining as a fugitive for sixteen years.   For those of us familiar with the Whitey canon of crime it is accurate with the challenge for the film makers being choosing what to include and leave out from the astonishing story in order to fit the confines of a two hour film.

Black Mass is a grim and well-done film that doesn't spare showing us the ugliness of Bulger's world nor the appalling actions of the FBI.   The performances are uniformly outstanding.  As dedicated THC reader LDC (aka The Other Larry) pointed out when we saw the movie there is a big contrast between Depp and the other actors.  Depp's Whitey Bulger is The Devil.  Wearing contacts and heavily made up he seems like a creature from another planet, smarter, more manipulative and intimidating than anyone else which you can confirm by watching the movie trailer which features perhaps the most chilling scene in the movie, a dinner party with Bulger, his partner Stephen Flemmi and two FBI agents.

Depp's portrayal reminds THC of a scene from near the end of Breaking Bad in which two DEA agents are trying to persuade Walter White's young accomplice Jesse Pinkham to cooperate with them in return for which they promise protection.  Jesse tells them:
"You guys are just guys, okay?  Mr White, he's the devil.  You know, he is . . . he is smarter than you, he is luckier than you.  Whatever you think is supposed to happen, I'm telling you, the exact, reverse opposite of that is going to happen." 
The eeriness of Depp's portrayal is reinforced by the naturalistic acting of the rest of the cast.  Joel Edgerton, an Australian actor, plays John Connolly, the FBI agent who recruits Whitey as an informant and ends up an accomplice to murder (he's currently serving a 40-year sentence for second-degree murder).  Connolly was a childhood friend of Bulger and Edgerton looks and sounds like a guy from South Boston (and by the way, another thing THC liked about the movie was that no one overdid the Boston accent).  Benedict Cumberbatch, the English actor currently playing Sherlock Holmes, plays Whitey's brother, Billy, who at the time was the President of the Massachusetts Senate.  Cumberbatch looks nothing like Billy but THC can attest, having been in a couple of small meetings with Senator Bulger in the 1980s that he has captured his mannerisms quite well.

The movie was filmed in and around Boston and though the city looks much different from the 70s and 80s it does a good job of capturing the feel of that time and place.

The film rates a definite thumbs up from THC.

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