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South Texas Living


‘Black Mass’ offers powerhouse performance, weak story




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At the movies
September 23, 2015 | 2,627 views | Post a comment

“Black Mass” is the story of James “Whitey” Bulger, the most notorious criminal in Boston’s history. It is not an origin story; it picks up halfway into Bulger’s career. We’re focused on the alliance he made with the FBI, who helped him push out the Italian Mafia and establish his own syndicate. “Black Mass” is the story of that ill-advised alliance.

This is a slow boil actors’ movie the whole way through. There are moments of violence, but there are no dramatic gunfights in the street. Bulger was not a man who took on even odds. Instead, you’re watching the story of a sociopath and those misguided enough to show him loyalty.

Johnny Depp’s Bulger is a vicious thing. He runs laps around Jack Nicholson’s “Greatest Hits” approach to the thinly veiled Bulger analogue in “The Departed.” There’s an attitude that Depp’s been coasting or selling out lately, but that’s a misread. He’s still taking chances and he’s always made bad movies as well as good. Depp hasn’t lost a thing, and Bulger is one of the best roles he’s ever done. What’s remarkable is how he presents a complete sociopath, yet still finds the humanity within. It’s what helps you understand how others could trust him, let him get inside their lives enough until he simply took them over. He can terrify a wife while the husband sits downstairs eating steak, knowing full well what’s happening. He has manipulated and terrified his way into ruling the lives of those around him.

The other standout performance belongs to Joel Edgerton, who gives us FBI agent John Connolly. This is the man who convinces the FBI to work with Bulger and give him free reign. They take down the Mafia for Bulger, but get little in return. It’s Connolly who masks this and reaps the rewards. Edgerton is only weeks off impressing in a very different performance in “The Gift.” The Australian actor’s build might make you think he only plays tough guy roles, but he’s a chameleon. Whether it’s Ramses in “Exodus: Gods and Kings” or jilted husband Tom Buchanan in “The Great Gatsby,” he is nearly unrecognizable from one role to the next. Pay attention to his name; you will be seeing much more of him in coming years.

There are certain supporting performances in “Black Mass” that hit beautifully -- Julianne Nicholson and Peter Sarsgaard are wonderful. There are others that get fumbled. Dakota Johnson (“50 Shades of Grey”) plays Bulger’s wife Lindsey. She’s good in some scenes, but not in the one that really matters. Kevin Bacon plays FBI director Charles McGuire -- he never seems more than a caricature of a hard-nosed Bostonian you might find in a Saturday Night Live sketch. The Boston accents are also ridiculously overdone, but you learn to cope. As Whitey’s politician brother Billy, Benedict Cumberbatch loses it whenever he lowers his voice -- some lines sound like his dragon Smaug from “The Hobbit” is grinning his way through drama school. You muscle through because the actors who are nailing their roles are absolutely obliterating them, but there are some glaring weak spots here from actors you wouldn’t expect.

Even the most riveting performances don’t always seem part of a whole. “Black Mass” doesn’t feel like it has much of a reason for being. It’s not a study in sociopathy or crime; it’s just a movie with excellent portrayals of sociopathy and crime in it. It’s the same problem that infected director Scott Cooper’s previous film, “Out of the Furnace.” Cooper fuels both films with incredible performances, but he fails in knowing exactly where he wants to take them. He shows you scenes that stun, but he doesn’t string them together in a way that makes you feel he’s moving anywhere.

There’s no closure, no final moment where everything comes together. No, you can’t rewrite history, but “Black Mass” certainly could have done any number of things to leave us more satisfied, or even purposefully unsatisfied. Instead, it just stumbles to a stop. Whatever emotions we have wrapped up in the story are not addressed in any significant way. It’s a worthwhile experience, but it’s also something of a flat one for the breadth of the story being told.

Two-and-a-half stars. “Black Mass” neither becomes an elite crime thriller nor a momentous character study. Its great performances take place in a thematic vacuum. As long as you go in for Depp and other actors to knock your socks off, it’ll be worthwhile. If you’re going for a complete cinematic experience and a whole story, “Black Mass” won’t fulfill. Consider “A Most Violent Year” as a recent film that better understands the slow boil 70s/80s crime film. “Black Mass” is rated R for violence, language, and drug use.

Gabe Valdez grew up in Chicago, went to college in Massachusetts, is a former news reporter in Floresville, Texas, and worked in politics in Oregon. He writes and directs films when he can find the time. Reviews, views, photos and more can be found at http://basilmarinerchase.wordpress.com. Email him at vlasicary@hotmail.com.
 

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