Pulpit of Thorns
About twenty years ago, Johnny Depp starred in a movie where he played an FBI agent going undercover in the New York mob over a large span of years. He got too close to his wiseguy mentor played by Al Pacino. That movie won a couple of prizes and its name was ‘Donnie Brasco’. Now Johnny Depp gets to perform a very similar role in this new film. The difference? Now, he is the one on the other side. Get into the real world of Boston mob boss: James ‘Whitey’ Bulger.
Movie: Black Mass
Producer: Cross Creek Pictures
Tim Burton really hurt Depp career. That last statement will get me hate from Depp fans (90’s are over there fellas). But, objectively I believe it’s right. Burton, with his obsession for Depp (mutual probably) made him play roles too personal and disguised. Wonka, The mad hatter, Sweeney Todd, Ed Wood, Ichabod Crane, Barnabas, and Scissorhands. Plus Sparrow. Plus Raoul Duke. Plus… he has played so many over the top strange characters that seeing him in a ‘normal’ movie becomes the strange part of the deal. ‘Hey, look at him… he can act’.
While Depp, again, enters a heavy characterization, this time it’s fine because this is a normal movie with normal characters. Well… maybe.
Depp plays Jimmy Withey Bulger, brother of a US Senator (Benedict Cumberbatch) who happens to be a small time crook in South Boston, same neighborhood where his pal John Connoly came out. Connoly played by Joel Edgerton (reviewed a couple of weeks ago for his role on ‘The Gift’) is a hot shot on FBI Boston Office where, as a subordinate to Agent McGuire (played by eternal Kevin Bacon) are trying to take down Italian mafia. Connoly, good friend of both Jimmy and his brother Billy, reaches them and Jimmy answers. They need a snitch. In return, Jimmy and their crew will be left alone to do their business. Thus, initiates a criminal pact. And it won’t end well.
Mass o’ criminals
There’s something funny in this kind of movies. It seems that writers and directors are infatuated with criminal underworld and their honor codes. Like if they want to be part of it in some way. I always remember that ‘Sopranos’ subplot where Christopher is trying to blend in the movie industry writing a script. It doesn’t matter how much of a psychopath the criminal is, they just want you to empathize. And they always get it. Depp plays a real time mob boss who killed everyone who got in his way. Google ‘James Bulger’ and you’ll see who Scott Cooper, the director (‘Out of the Furnace’ reviewed right here) is trying to make you care about. A true psycho that loved his brother, mother, wife (Dakota Johnson) and son. And no one else. He didn’t love his mob partners Steve (Rory Cochrane) or Kevin (Jesse Plemons). He didn’t love his alleged friend John. He didn’t give two fucks for him. So that’s why he screwed him over.
Black Mass is not profound. It’s not dwelling on criminal minds nor wants you to understand it. It’s a simple story about mobsters doing their mob things. Killing, conspiring. Cursing. A lot. A whole lot. That’s it. In the hands of Scorsese we would have probably got a peek of Bulger’s time in Alcatraz where he experienced with LSD, something said and hinted on the movie but never developed. A pity.
Black Mass is directed with expertise for Cooper that’s gaining confidence on his skills and left behind the general mediocrity of his last work. There are a couple of shots that presume of a noteworthy background (a particular one where a car full of people starts and the camera follows it while showing what’s going on inside) and with an elegant bleak cinematography (Masanobu Takayanagi, also in ‘Out of the Furnace) representing the decades and locations the movie is set, creates a defining style.
The acting is superb and even. There’s a thing with the Boston accent. Some of the actors just forgot it between shots and threw in some Italian for spicing it up. It’s minor.
Biggest flaw of ‘Black Mass’? Its lack of depth. Big issues are treated over the length of the movie. Loyalty being the most important. And we never receive an explanation of Connoly’s loyalty to Bulger. It’s just is. He is loyal to his childhood friend (hero?) and that’s it. Take it for granted.
Like the bullets.