Friday, September 18, 2015

A Reel Review: BLACK MASS

In his short directing career, the films of Scott Cooper have played out like a meal composed of the finest ingredients available, only to leave the patron feeling like they only consumed one of the five courses they were promised. Cooper’s newest, BLACK MASS, is much of the same, only this time there is one essential ingredient which carries the entire meal.
Based on a true story, 1970’s Boston gangster James “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp) is persuaded by his childhood friend, FBI Agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), to turn informant to help wipe out a rival mob. Bulger uses the alliance to gain power and become one of the biggest crime bosses in the city…all with the FBI’s knowledge.

BLACK MASS, at its core, is a story about two men who grew up together on the streets of the rough and tumble South Boston; one of which went into crime, and the other went into law enforcement. Both men are fiercely loyal to each other, and that loyalty is put to the test as each one of them uses the uneasy alliance for their own purposes; Connolly uses Whitey to further his career, and Whitey uses his protected-informant status to commit even more crimes and build a criminal empire.

Somewhere around the half-way mark, BLACK MASS loses that focus and settles into a standard procedural, with each one of the inevitable beats of who-betrays-who coming at obvious times. Director Scott Cooper spends a lot of time with his characters and lets them play off one another, but in losing sight of the heart of the story, BLACK MASS ends up feeling very empty and cold. Too much time is spent away from Whitey and Connolly and too much with the large cast of cops and robbers. It functions just fine as a film, but the feeling of something missing is not easy to shake off.

Cooper, in only his third feature film, does great work in building tension, photographing Boston, and bringing the creepy underbelly of the crime-world to life. He has some clever shooting and editing tricks up his sleeve; namely shooting 9/10’s of a scene very tight only to wrap it up with wide-shot, showing people and things that we didn’t know were in the same room. But mostly, Cooper solidifies his reputation as a director for actors, as everyone in the large cast turns in great performances.

And the greatest performance of them all belongs to Johnny Depp, who is more energized and committed to his craft here than he has been in years. Depp vanishes into the character, giving us a cold and merciless man who loves his mom and son just as much as he hates traitors and people he can’t trust. He is chilling, frightening, and commands the screen whenever he appears. He manages to act his way through the heavy prosthetics, which unfortunately make him stick out like a sore thumb amongst the rest of the cast.

The rest of the large cast is all solid, even though most of them seem to struggle with their Boston accents. Benedict Cumberbatch appears as Whitey’s brother, and his accent comes and goes inside of one sentence, and Corey Stoll, who plays a prosecutor, has the same problem. Joel Edgerton maintains his just fine, and shoulders the burden of carrying the film right along with Depp. Dakota Johnson, as the mother of Whitey’s son, turns in the best work she’s ever done, and the supporting cast of Kevin Bacon, Jesse Plemons, Rory Cochrane, Adam Scott, Juno Temple, and Peter Sarsgaard are all strong.

Cooper’s casting of Johnny Depp in BLACK MASS is certainly a godsend, as the film would certainly struggle to find anything interesting without him. Like the rest of his films, BLACK MASS seems to do everything right when putting the ingredients together, and it tastes pretty good, but oddly isn’t very filling. This is a film that’s only worthwhile for seeing a performance of a lifetime.


No comments:

Post a Comment

A few rules:
1. Personal attacks not tolerated.
2. Haters welcome, if you can justify it.
3. Swearing is goddamn OK.