BFI LFF 2015 – Black Mass

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Black MassTo get the obvious out of the way, Black Mass – Scott Cooper’s bloody take on the true story of one of the most notorious gangsters in history, James “Whitey” Bulger – is Johnny Depp’s most exciting work in a while, his cinematic sigh of relief if you will. Transformative and immersive as Bulger, he is ruthless, sociopathic, violent and even charismatic all at once – whilst also being so very, very sinister, nailing that manner of communicating to someone pure venom with just a look or a soft spoken word.

In 1970s South Boston – more commonly, even affectionately, known as “Southie” by its residents – a shadowy alliance is forged between the FBI and the infamous Winter Hill Gang, of which Bulger is the revered leader. Bright-eyed agent, John Connolly, grew up as a Southie boy with Bulger and his brother Billy (a hugely prominent politician in Boston) and he capitalises on this bond to convince Bulger to become an informant.

Connolly’s FBI bosses are brought round by his passionate and faithful pitch that Bulger will be pivotal in their successfully gaining information about and ultimately taking down the Italian mafia operating in the north. But the only thing this alliance seems to serve is Bulger’s own agenda and, ironically, Bulger’s rise to a state of untouchable authority is aided and abetted by the FBI. It is because of them that he is able to scale to the heights (and sink to the deplorable lows) that he does.

Bulger’s story is mapped out by the later confessions of his former associates turned informants spilling information after the jig is (finally) up, leading us through the twists and turns of his brutally determined rise to power and eventual fall. It’s an effective set up – Bulger through the eyes of those who knew him best, to whatever extent that may be – as well as the character traits uncovered by Depp as the villain himself.

Black Mass Jonny Depp as James Whitey BulgerThe film is strengthened by its focus on character and relationships because these things are so key to why and how the events played out as they did. Connolly was elevated by being in John’s presence; he wanted to have his cake and eat it by being the all-star agent knocking down the bad-guy Italians whilst also pandering to Bulger. Loyalty and ambition completely derail whatever sense of right and wrong he may have started out with. Young gang member Kevin is driven by his almost religious revere of Bulger, ready and willing to go to any lengths for the gang. Billy finds himself in the interesting position of being a respected man of the law whose brother flagrantly breaks it, with the brothers towing a sensitive line where they both try to look out for each other without actually stepping into the other’s territory.

Bulger racks up an impressive list of misdemeanours including racketeering, money laundering, extortion and of course, murder. Cooper does an admirable job of directing a condensed version of a crazy life considering Bulger’s lengthy history. A winning pace sees things constantly on to the next heist or the next hit and even in the more held back moments when less is actively happening on screen, the sense of carefully measured menace is always maintained.

But while as a movie Black Mass gives us an extensive glimpse into the stuff of legend, which is so incredible that it’s almost hard to believe this was actually someone’s life, it doesn’t quite take its place among some of the other renowned gangster movies that have come before it. It lacks the flair and magnetism of say Goodfellas, so it’s a great gangster movie, but not one of the greats. With a cast that hit the ground running, however, and a director at the helm of a crew who have an earnest understanding of not only the broad chronicle of events but the elements within them, the determination to give a legitimate performance of these twisted and illicit times pays off. In this case, just a great watch should be good enough.

Black Mass screened as part of the 2015 BFI London Film Festival and is released in UK cinemas on 27 November 2015.

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