A senator, a gangster and an FBI agent sitting around a barbeque sharing a beer might sound like the opening line of a stand-up comedy routine but it is infact a real-life event and one which features in Scott Coopers quasi-biography of James “Whitey” Bulger – the famous South Boston gangster who was for over a decade top of the FBI’s most-wanted list.
For Cooper, Black Mass follows up his impressive – if somewhat over-looked – debut Out of the furnace and also seeks to reinvigorate a genre that hasn’t seen a decent addition for over a decade, infact where it not for HBO’s excellent Boardwalk Empire then a case could be made that the gangster genre as a whole has been sent to ‘sleep with the fishes’.
Likewise Johnny Depp’s career has taken somewhat of a slump – particularly in the serious thespian stakes – with accusations that for all Captain Jack Sparrow’s charms, he is in danger of hijacking Depp’s career much like he would a piece of pirate booty. Audiences of a certain age have become accustomed to Depp’s light-hearted type-casting and many are not aware that he is infact arguably one of the finest actors of his – or any - generation. With this in mind it is in South Boston’s infamous James “Whitey” Bulger that Depp seeks to remind people of what it is he is actually capable of.
So whilst the stakes are high for both director and star with what is an adaptation of Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neills thrilling source material it is with somewhat of a relief that Black Mass rises to the challenge and then some.
Harking back to the halcyon days of New Hollywood in the 70’s Cooper has managed to create an authentic, artistic and - above all - immersive piece of cinema that echoes the classic masterpieces of Scorsese, Friedkin and Coppolla. To say that Black Mass will be an absolute delight to serious cineastes is probably an under-statement – this is classic film-making that anyone over a certain age will find a welcome change to the modern excesses of Hollywood.
Dialed-down and dialogue-heavy in places, this could so easily have been a mundane, plodding disaster but with a director well aware of his craft and an actor making an absolute mockery of claims that he is content to coast through the latter part of his career Black Mass never appears to be anything other than riveting and it is hard to find a single moment of wasted screen-time.
Of course, a great narrative helps and with what is a true story that absolutely beggars belief it is no surprise that Cooper has managed to make such an interesting, engrossing film. To simply call Whitey Bulger a gangster is to overlook the complexities of what was a fascinating character. This was a man who worked closely with local law-enforcement -most notably here in the shape of Joel Edgerton’s murky John Connelly - to preserve his empire and further his power.
Aside from his somewhat unique relationship with the FBI, Whitey also managed to exploit his reach and connection into the political world around him through the bond he shared with his state senator brother - an excellently restrained Benedict Cumberbatch – making Whitey’s tale one that is scarcely believable as a piece of Hollywood fiction, let alone one that is firmly rooted in fact. A movie that depicts a notorious, violent gangster and his ability to mix in the highest levels of law and government should be entertaining enough on it’s own yet Cooper and – in particular – Depp don’t seem willing to let the story be the star here as both provide some of the most impressive work that will be seen throughout 2015.
Cooper has the lead as director and delivers what is a tight, taughtly scripted film without any wasted moments - all hinting at what is a very exciting career to come. Filmed primarily on the native streets of South Boston in which Whitey himself actually operated there is an air of authenticity right from the beginning as Cooper expertly projects a somewhat bleak, broken look at life on the mafia-controlled streets of the 70’s and 80’s. The visual style employed here – aside from providing a nostalgia for the classic period in Hollywood cinema - also adds an extra layer of praise to what is already an impressive sophomore effort from Cooper.
Most films that focus this heavily on dialogue and characterisation run the risk of being a boring turn-off to audiences – particularly in these modern times when most attention-spans seem to be ever dwindling. However, what Black Mass manages to achieve is the feeling that every single scene plays a vital part in what is an underlying perpetual motion.
Accompanied by Tom Holkenborg’s excellent score – itself acting as an almost funereal drumbeat to each impending moment of doom – every ounce of tension and drama is wringed from the film’s script and transferred to the audience.
This is an absolute master-class in working the narrative and ensuring that the dialogue scenes are just as thrilling as any of the action sequences that punctuate the film with the inevitable frequency that gangster films dictate.
Cooper also manages to avoid the pitfall of using cheap shock tactics and gratuitous violence in order to create interest and instead shows immense restraint in displaying each murder with the quick, cold-blooded professionalism that would be expected of men who had made such an horrific act a simple way of life. The maxim of “less is more” is quite clearly at play here and the director seems well aware that often it is the applied threat of violence that creates more tension and melodrama and Black Mass is absolutely brimming with both.Despite
the efforts of the director and excellent support from a heavyweight cast which contains impressive supporting turns from Cumberbatch and Edgerton – aswell as the ever-improving Jesse Plemmons – this is Depp’s film entirely. To say that the actor returns to his best is to do him a major disservice, not only is this potentially the best performance he’s ever given – certainly his best in the last decade or so – but it is also as good as anything that DeNiro or Brando have ever offered in this genre in the past. This is an absolute clinic in screen-acting and any doubts that Depp had hit the auto-pilot on his career are well and truly shattered by what is an absolutely astounding display.
Far from being content with transforming himself in a physical sense - the ice-blue contact lenses and severe hair-line take a bit of getting used to initially – Depp absolutely disappears into the role as he provides what is a chilling, almost unhinged portrayal of a man who was every bit the psychopath he appears to be here.
With what is an absolute world away from the comedic high jinks of Captain Sparrow, Depp exudes a dark, hidden menace that is somehow more terrifying than the volatile, powder-keg portrayals that have become somewhat synonomous with the genre through the likes of James Cagney and Joe Pesci.
With a subtle, under-the-radar approach that at times is frankly un-nerving, Depp provides a performance that may quite possibly be the best of his entire career – no better example than the meal-time scene in which a conversation about an ancient family recipe suddenly becomes an uncomfortable ordeal drenched in dread and menace and is every bit as tense as Pesci’s famous “funny how?” scene in Goodfellas.
Depp’s Bulger is at turns chilling, ruthless, calculating and dangerous and all the while he is underlined by a pitch-perfect Boston drawl that seems to increase both the menace and authenticity of both character and performance.
They always say that the best actors never play a character but they become them and it seems as though that is the very avenue that Depp has taken himself down with a stunning return to form that will surely have the academy seal of approval come February.
Depp’s mammoth, attention-grabbing performance headlines what is a riveting character study of one of the most infamous figures in the modern-day underworld and accompanies perhaps the years most captivating narrative. Shining a spot-light on the blurring of black and white into ever-increasing shades of grey between the law and the law-breakers this is a fascinating study into the amoral world that these men inhabited on the streets of Boston.
Class and authenticity bleed from the screen at every turn as Cooper manages to return to the days when the “auteur” reigned supreme and movies become almost an art-form of their own. When you align a top-class cast with a promising director, arm them with a hugely remarkable story and anchor it all around a towering, mesmeric performance by one of the finest actors of the past 25 years then you inevitably get a master-piece – and if there is any justice then in the years to come that is exactly what Black Mass will be referred to.
Searingly atmospheric, aesthetically absorbing and dripping with acting and directing quality this is a perfectly-formed cocktail that oozes class in every single element of it’s construction. They don’t make films like this very often these days and that only enhances the appeal of Black Mass even more.
“I don’t consider this rattin’, or informin’ – this is business” elicits Whitey when news of his hook-up with the FBI is discovered by his closest soldier. When it comes round to Oscar time in 2016, the business will only just be beginning.
For more reviews visit www.theguildreel.weebly.com