The What/Why/How of “Black Mass”

Sometimes a film is easy to sum up.  Sometimes it sucks so terribly, or shines so brightly, that a quick writeup is all that’s needed.  Sometimes I’m tired and can sum up my feeling on a film because exhaustion apparently sharpens my focus.  Or something.  Onward, to Black Mass!

black mass onesheetNutshell: Black Mass is a clear-eyed look at a shady time in the FBI’s history, and the life of a notorious Boston mob boss.  Right up there with GoodFellas and Casino. Or better yet, Depp’s equally fine Donnie Brasco. Grade: A

What is it: a biopic about Boston mob boss James “Whitey” Bulger and the corruption of some members of the FBI’s Boston office when they decided to use Bulger as an informant.  Spoiler Alert: Bulger gets more out of the deal than the FBI does, and the gangster evaded capture for his crimes for years.  The dirty FBI agents — and Bulger’s compatriots — didn’t fare as well.

Why should you see it: Black Mass is a fascinating look at the inner workings of Boston’s “Irish Mob”, and how an idea can be good in theory, but horrible in… execution.  As Bulger, Depp thoroughly inhabits the character, giving a nuanced performance that many have labeled too humanizing for such a notorious real-life killer.  Listening to the actors warm up their Bah-ston Southie accents is a treat.  So is seeing so many cool actors in one place; Depp, Joel Edgerton, Kevin Bacon, Adam Scott, Corey Stoll, and Benedict Cumberbatch to name a few.

How did I like it: This movie could have easily been simply “The One Where Johnny Depp Wears Contacts And Old Age Makeup”.  Instead, it’s a thoughtful, immersive look at what happened when Bulger became an informant (something Bulger to this day denies), and the events leading up to his flight from justice.  Black Mass doesn’t point fingers, and it also eschews the good guy/bad guy trope.  Everyone is a little bit grey here, and they only get greyer as things progress.

Stuff I loved?  Adam Scott’s impressive FBI pr0nstache.  Cumberbatch’s oozing charm as a politician that may not be dirty, but knows way too much to be clean.  The cohesive feel of the cast playing Bulger’s “Winter Hill Gang”. The amazing soundtrack, from The Animals to the Stones, pipes and drums to disco.  The way Edgerton’s agent starts to strut and preen as he becomes dirtier and dirtier.  David Rosenbloom’s whipsmart editing that manages to let the story flow regardless of the jumps in chronology and/or location.  The absolutely amazing performance Dakota Johnson delivers as Bulger’s common-law wife Lindsey; she’s able to match Depp even when things get intense, and I’m really hoping she gets to dig into more of this caliber of work.

Remember when Johnny Depp was more than a Tim Burton/Disney caricature?  If you don’t, then catch Black Mass, and remember.

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