by Michael Reistetter
“Simply criminal.” Your prototypical period piece about organized crime ought to have a narrator who you can sympathize with, right? You know, despite all his many wrong doings, the audiences are exposed to the protagonist’s humane side? Well, much like its main character, Scott Cooper’s Boston-based Irish mob drama, “Black Mass” broke a lot of the rules.
Johnny Depp has earned a reputation as an extremely versatile actor, prone to dawning makeup and elaborate disguises to conjure his characters. However, with Black Mass, his overall brooding demeanor evokes a talent within him that had previously remained dormant for a long time. Although a few Box office-disasters have harmed Depp in recent years, it appears he is back with a vengeance in his explosive turn as one of the most notorious gangsters in modern history.
Depp plays Jimmy “Whitey” Bulger, a mob boss of the 1970s and 1980s who becomes an informant for the FBI. He is aided by his childhood-neighbor turned FBI agent John Connelly, played by Joel Edgerton, who throughout the movie is shown cutting corners and burying evidence. Connelly does this to benefit Bulger, by eliminating all his competition on the streets of “Southie.”
Black Mass is the classic crime film about “rats.” Rats populate the streets, and so do informants, who “rat” on their friends, or in Bulger’s case, on their enemies, in exchange for immunity. Cooper gathers much influence from classic Martin Scorsese gems like “Mean Streets”(1973), “Goodfellas” (1990), and largely, “The Departed” (2006), to convey how rats are handled within the environment of a criminal organization.
While Depp’s performance was the standout takeaway from the film, Edgerton fell fat, which could be excused given his recent body of presumably exhausting work (writing, directing, and starring in this summer’s sleeper hit, “The Gift.”) Authentic Boston accents are not easy to come by, which is what makes 2014 Academy Award-nominee Benedict Cumberbatch’s efforts as Whitey’s brother, Massachusetts Senator Billy Bulger, that much more impressive.
As a squeaky clean politician with the ambition to help the community before himself, can Billy ever really escape the clutches of his brother Whitey’s authoritarian hold on the very streets he is attempting to clean? The Bulger boys ran South Boston, albeit independent of one another, with the Senator adamantly refusing to corrupt his own political agenda.
When they’re in the room together, it’s like seeing the two versions of “The Godfather” Saga’s Michael Corleone meet. The anti-heroic mafia crime boss whom audiences came to know, and the hypothetical “Senator Corleone,” or “Governor Corleone,” Michael’s father Don Vito always envisioned his youngest son would become.
Scott Cooper’s “Black Mass” in no way replicates what The Godfather films or Scorsese’s classic crime movies did for cinema. However, it holds up on its own merit.
Why did Whitey Bugler do the things he did, and how did he become Whitey Bulger? The full truth behind the Bulgers’ surprisingly functional dynamic, and the nature of the ultimate “family secret,” awaits your interpretation..
Look for Depp, and hopefully Cumberbatch, to be serenaded come award season, and also whether or not the next mob film to hit the market will capitalize on filling in the few thematic holes left by Cooper’s unavoidable shortcomings.