Monday, September 21, 2015

[Review] Black Mass

There was a time when Johnny Depp was racking up Oscar nominations (Pirates of the Caribbean, Finding Neverland, Sweeney Todd) within a short span, proving to be an actor that was on top of the world, critically and commercially. But after a few too many films with Tim Burton and some mediocre Mortdecai's, his reputable catalog took some frustrating turns, which is why it's so refreshing to see him take on the role of notorious Whitey Bulger in this gangster biopic.

South Boston in the '70s. When we first meet Bulger, he's in a bar getting irritated by the way some guy is sloppily eating out of the peanut dish. In a subsequent scene, after his young son gets in trouble for punching a bully at school, Bulger lectures him saying "You didn't get in trouble because you punched a sneaky brat in the face. You got in trouble because you punched a sneaky brat in the face in front of people." And that's Bulger in a nutshell. We're introduced to an extensive cast of characters early on, but it manages to not feel overstuffed. There's Whitey's girlfriend (Dakota Johnson), his politician brother (Benedict Cumberbatch), and FBI agent (Joel Edgerton). Kevin Bacon, Adam Scott, Juno Temple, Peter Sarsgaard, and Corey Stoll also make appearances.

Framed from the perspective of Bulger's former associates (one of which includes Jesse Plemons, whom you might know as Todd from "Breaking Bad"), the film profiles Bulger's life of brutal street crimes and his entangled schemes with the Feds. Regarding the film's relationship with the gangster genre, it draws from the greats like Goodfellas and The Departed, rather than Gangster Squad and other flops. The script is fully competent, and it has such a solid cast to bring it to life.

Johnny Depp is no stranger to playing real-life mobsters, from his turn as Joseph Pistone in Donnie Brasco, to John Dillinger in Public Enemies. While those roles were more driven by Depp's smoothness and charisma, Black Mass essentially un-Depps Johnny Depp, putting on the ugliness both inside and outside--Stained teeth, glazed blue "I'm dead inside" contacts, receding hair slick-back, and a permanent scowl. This look had the potential to be distracting, but Depp disappears right into it. There's an evil psychopath that lurks beneath. And even as cold-blooded as he is, this is the type of magnetic performance that makes you look forward to every moment he's on screen just to see how each conflictual and confrontational scene unfolds.

Black Mass is a well-wrought gangster drama. Sure, it might be in the shadow of other films that have come before it, the accuracies are questionable, and there isn't much substance to the whole thing aside from Bulger catching bodies, as well as the idea that he directly or indirectly ruins the life of damn near every person that comes in contact with him. But would you expect anything else?

* 8.5/10 *

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