Black Mass (2015) Review: Strictly Criminal
Crime films are quite possibly the most conflicted genre of cinema. Here you have films that depict the most gratuitous acts of violence, moral depravity and disregard for the rules that society has agreed to align themselves by. Their characters use foul language and more or less depict psychopathic tendencies. This is a genre that takes it’s cues from the villains perspective. Yet, for every misjudged act of hyperbolic violence, the audience never seems unnerved.
The reason is, mob movies, like the western before it, present these heinous personalities within the context of something that makes all the things that are inherently wrong right. A code. Characters in mob films live by a sense of honour, and presenting that as a central theme in the film makes the story you’re watching feel as if it exists in a state of ordered chaos. After all, in the words of the immortal philosopher Omar Little, a man must have a code.
Black Mass has everything that makes a good mob film and more. It follows the story of F.B.I agent John Connolly, played by Joel Edgerton. Connolly is a Southie native, and when he discovers a new federal agenda to take down organized crime, he gets it in his head to work with childhood friend turned gangster Jimmy “Whitey” Bulger, as a means of providing the Bureau with information, in exchange for protecting Whitey from any harassment from law enforcement.
Technically, Whitey isn’t rattin’ and John isn’t facilitating criminal activity. Simply put, the two form a mutually beneficial alliance. It’s a win-win situation that takes place between the years of 1975 and 2011, spending the bulk of time in the 80s, chronicling the rise to power of Jimmy “Whitey” Bulger in South Boston.
The story itself is a big highlight of this film. Not just in the material itself, but how the movie chooses to tell it. It’s told through the interrogation testimony of multiple personalities, all featured in the movie as members of Whitey’s organization. The film will sporadically return to these interrogation scenes, presenting the testimony as both set up or an addendum to the flashback scenes in which the movie primarily takes place. Much like the first season of True Detective, except with fewer statements about the metaphysical status of the universe, and the geometrics of space-time.
Because of this, the movie is essentially one that follows the story of Whitey Bulger but never takes it from his point of view. This emphasizes the movie’s sense of…well story. You feel as though you’re watching the reenactment of what someone else witnessed about Whitey. Some moment where he was violent, or clever that either impressed or horrified them. This does nothing but make the movie feel authentic and helps to elevate the status of its subject. Whitey doesn’t just feel like a character, he feels like a legend. His presence is felt looming over the films from start to finish because of the way these witness scenes present him.
This is not just by way of exposition. As much as Whitey is touted as a horror, it’s nowhere near as startling as what’s shown. The script is rife with moments. Moments that do nothing but serve the character it’s tried to build in Whitey. Johnny Depp sells these moments like water in Mad Max. He’s menacing, charming, calculating and compassionate, sometimes all in the same scene.
At a certain point, some actors become so big that it’s hard to see past their status. When was the last time you saw George Clooney in a movie and you didn’t just think of it as George Clooney #301? This is not to say big actors can’t give gripping performances, but it’s a testament to Depp’s performance that it’s not him I see, it’s Whitey Bulger.
The other performances are great as well. Edgerton’s Connolly takes the reigns of the film when Bulger isn’t present. He’s excellent in his own right but the film can’t help but feel like it’s lost momentum without Whitey. No fault of Edgerton’s, it’s just that Whitey is such an engaging character to watch. Another notable casting is Rory Cochrane as Steve Flemmi. He’s Whitey’s right-hand man and moves with a sort of silent intensity. There’s so much this man expresses with just a look, it’s like he was made for close-ups. There’s not a bad casting in the mix, and it’s always good to be reminded of Depp’s acting chops, especially since his last good role was a lizard with a cowboy hat.
Part of what makes mob movies work is the sense of community they have. As much as they might be violent criminals, they are still very much the kids who used to play in the streets they now run. The movie has an especially firm grasp on this idea. Whitey is shown helping old ladies carry in their groceries in between murders. There’s a line in the film about playing cops and robbers as a kid, and how that game never really ends. The film is rooted in the history the characters share, and uses it as a platform for the dialogue. Every exchange feels as though it’s natural, which is due to the fact that the characters feel lived in.
To get pretentious for a minute, I did like the way this movie uses space. There are times when the scenes you’re watching are obvious to the learned viewer, such as Whitey taking the man who publicly insulted him to a wide open space with no witnesses, but then there’s the opposite. Tight corridors that the camera tracks down and follows, so much that it feels claustrophobic. There’s also a tendency in a few scenes to keep the distance from Whitey, angling the shot from what feels like a child peering in at a monster from under the covers.
Perhaps the only thing that I can say Black Mass falls short in, is that it doesn’t exactly reinvent the wheel of crime films. There’s the rise to power, the time of celebration, and then the downfall of the whole thing. We’ve seen it time and time again in Scorcese pictures, but what keeps ‘Black Mass’ feeling fresh is that it doesn’t shy away from its brutality.
Goodfellas, Casino, Wolf of Wall Street, these are all films that present the gangster lifestyle as a grand old time (Also they’re the same movie). Yeah, you’ll end up on the run, but at the end of those films, the protagonist is doing all right for himself. ‘Black Mass’ is about a psychopath that has no accountability for his actions, it’s almost like a horror movie in some regards. Make no mistake, this is a dark movie.
Black Mass is a severely entertaining film. The writing, the aesthetic, everything in it conduces towards an entertaining 2-hour ride through a crime-ridden South Boston. Depp is great in it, and the rest of the cast as well, even if Depp’s performance overshadows them at times. The main gripe I have is that it’s nothing new in the world of crime films but that’s not exactly a sin. In fact, the film is so good that it’ll easily be placed on my list of films to watch when doing a movie marathon of that particular genre. I would say go out and see it in the theatre, not because there’s anything that you would miss on your home screen, but just because I left the theatre excited about it and wanting people to see it, just so I could hear what they thought.
Rating: Big Screen Watch