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Movie review: ‘Black Mass’

| Contributing Writer

Directed by: Scott Cooper
Starring: Johnny Depp, Benedict Cumberbatch, Joel Edgerton

Whitey Bulger is not the average gangster, so it’s fitting that “Black Mass” is not an average gangster film.

The movie proceeds more as a biopic than a true organized crime drama. Bulger and his rise through the criminal underworld of Boston are the film’s main focal points, as opposed to the specific activities of his Winter Hill Gang. It follows the now-stale “interview after the fact followed by flashbacks” trope, which, in this case, is an effective format. This is due in large part to the shock value of hearing those being interrogated about Bulger admit to the brutal crimes they committed in such a matter-of-fact manner, making the setup less stale and providing an intriguing backdrop for the action of the movie.

Of course, there’s no lack of snitch-silencing, contentious dealings among gang members and ethnic feuds, in this case between the Italians of Boston’s North End and the predominantly Irish Winter Hill crew of South Boston. In no way does it completely abandon the gangster-film genre, but the driving force behind the film is undoubtedly Bulger’s sociopathic, ruthless pursuit of success in his criminal undertakings, portrayed by Johnny Depp with chilling effectiveness.

Part of this effectiveness is due to Bulger’s emotional side, most evident after the deaths of his son and mother. Subsequent to each of these events, Depp expertly captures the turmoil that Bulger endured and uses it as a foray into the further development of his violent and determined attitude toward constructing and expanding his empire of drug trafficking, racketeering, money laundering and murder.

The cast of “Black Mass” includes some of the highest-profile talent Hollywood has to offer, from Benedict Cumberbatch, Jesse Plemons and Adam Scott to Kevin Bacon, Corey Stoll and Joel Edgerton. The ensemble cast serves as a deep portrayal of the story’s backdrop on both sides of the law, alongside which Bulger’s crimes escalated for nearly two decades, and all of these characters create a realistic social environment that blurs the line between the good guys and the bad guys. Julianne Nicholson provides a strong supporting performance as the wife of FBI agent John Connolly, serving as his moral devil’s advocate.

The only acting flaw lies in the attempts at Boston accents, which see varying degrees of success (as reference for those not from the area, “Good Will Hunting” is among the few films that, for the most part, does the Boston accent justice). Depp, Plemons and Edgerton deliver relatively accurate dialectical performances, but Cumberbatch and Scott leave much to be desired, as Cumberbatch struggles a bit to adopt the rough-edged Bostonian tongue over his native London accent, and Scott’s voice is nearly indistinguishable from his Minnesotan character on “Parks and Recreation.”

That being said, in all other aspects the cast delivers powerful performances throughout. Notably, Cumberbatch does a solid job as Billy Bulger, Whitey’s brother and President of the Massachusetts State Senate, who straddles the line between complicity in his brother’s actions and remaining loyal to the duties of his office.

One standout, other than Depp as Bulger, is Edgerton’s turn as John Connolly, the FBI agent who is widely considered the reason Bulger and Winter Hill became as powerful as they did. From the first moment he’s on the screen, Connolly appears subversive, cowardly and eager to kiss any of the behinds (on either the Fed or mob’s side) that could help him advance in the Bureau. Edgerton captures this mentality perfectly, and in so doing contributes to the development of the film in a profound manner. Though he seeks power, the means by which he pursues it leave him powerless to the whims of both Bulger and Feds like U.S. Attorney Fred Wyshak (Stoll). The film does Connolly no favors and refuses to allow him to be forgotten as an accomplice to Bulger’s atrocities.

Some of the artistic choices in Scott Cooper’s direction also serve to build the character of Bulger and the atmosphere in which he operated. The most apparent of these is the choice to stage nearly all of Bulger’s executions in outdoor settings in broad daylight. Bulger and his crew were untouchable; multiple hits took place in parking lots in the middle of the day, and they faced no legal risk due to Bulger’s position of power with the FBI, and Connolly in particular. All of this serves to fault the FBI for a significant portion of Bulger’s activity.

Cooper and writers Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth have created a successful film that provides a scathing portrayal of pretty much everyone involved in the infamous rise of James “Whitey” Bulger, and it is indeed a worthy portrayal of one of the most violent, brutal and mythical figures in Boston’s history.