Tuesday, October 13, 2015
'Black Mass' (2015) directed by Scott Cooper [London Film Festival 2015]
Tuesday, October 13, 2015 by londoncitynights
Johnny Depp's regression from ultra-cool indie darling to flouncing tit depressed the hell out of me. Outright classics like Edward Scissorhands, Dead Man, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Ed Wood cemented him as someone willing to take on risky projects and deliver complex, innovative performances. Then came Captain Jack Sparrow, Willy Wonka, the Mad Hatter and finally, the cruellest blow of all, the truly execrable Mortdecai.
After suffering through Mortdecai this January I wrote: "Mr Depp, you need to stop. This is rock bottom. Put down the silly hats. Take off the beads. Throw away the eyeliner. Mr Depp, stop. Please stop." Mercifully, at least in Black Mass, he has.
Depp plays James "Whitey" Bulger, a vicious Boston crimelord who gradually seized control of the city. A textbook psychopath, his complete lack of conscience and fierce intelligence make him a natural and successful gangster. Black Mass shows us Whiteys inexorable rise to the upper echelons of organised crime, with a focus on his relationship with FBI Agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton).
Connolly and Whitey were childhood friends, growing up in the tightly-knit south side of Boston. Though they've ended up on opposite sides of the law, they're still Southie boys, and Connolly sees the connection as an opportunity. Approaching Whitey, the two form an 'alliance'; Whitey's gangland insider knowledge being used to take down the Italian Mafia and Connolly using his influence to get the FBI to tolerate Whitey's growing crime empire.
Higher-ups in the FBI grow increasingly uncomfortable with the arrangement, suspecting that the information Whitey's feeding them is useless and disturbed that anyone who informs on Whitey to them quickly ends up dead. As the years tick by the boundaries between gangster and federal agent gradually blur in a hail of bullets, blood and expensive steaks.
The obvious centrepiece of Black Mass is Depp's Whitey. Swaddled under reams of latex, with a receding hairline, sunken cheeks and ice-blue eyes, he's only just plausible as an actual flesh and blood human being. Despite looking a bit Dick Tracy, this lizardlike visage is hugely effective and actually intimidating. Depp takes this opportunity to suppress his flamboyant tics, achieving a scarily focussed intensity. Lots of this is in his beady eyes; they regard the people around him with eerie intensity - like a snake regarding a mouse.
That said, Edgerton more than holds his own. With a square-jawed, square-shouldered and square-haired figure, he looks confident, assertive and successful. He prides his masculinity, seeing both his FBI work and his Southie roots as validations of his personality. It's precisely that which makes him so vulnerable to corruption; eager to paint himself as a hero and ignore any negative repercussions of his tactics. The really depressing thing is that we quickly understand that Connolly's ego, ability to cross ethical boundaries to get what he wants and high ambitions would have made him a pretty damn good gangster - but he's a terrible FBI Agent.
It's their relationship that forms the titular Black Mass, with Whitey in the role of Satan and Connolly selling his soul. This mythic element bumps up the film from above-average gangster flick to something pretty special - and it's here that Depp's outré make-up finally reveals its true purpose. Whitey doesn't look human because he isn't human - he is Satan wearing a human skin: tempting, corrupting and sucking away every molecule of goodness from the world around him.
The core Whitey/Connolly relationship is elevated by a fine supporting cast. Dakota Johnson and Julianne Nicholson both find something new in the extremely well-trodden territory of 'miserable gangster's wife'. The thugs surrounding Whitey also come off well, particularly Jesse Plemons, whose wonderfully evocative mug kicks off the film. Special notice too for Benedict Cumberbatch - he maybe wouldn't be at the top of my list for playing a guy from the mean streets of Boston, but he does an admirable job with both accent and character.
As far as gangster films go, Black Mass isn't quite in the top tier. But when the top tier consists of the first two Godfather films, Goodfellas and Once Upon a Time in America you're going to be hard pressed to equal them. Instead it happily slots into the only-slightly-lesser 'really good gangster movie' category, alongside fare like Carlito's Way, Donnie Brasco and Miller's Crossing.
It also proves that Depp has still got the goods - let's hope that future years will provide a wealth of interesting, creative performances from him. Then again, Pirates of the Caribbean 5 is shambling its way into cinemas in 2017 so let's not count our chickens...
Black Mass is released 27 November 2015.Tags: Benedict Cumberbatch , black mass , Dakota johnson , film , jesse plemons , Joel Edgerton , johnny depp , lff 2015 , scott cooper