The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Black Mass

Johnny Depp's career has been largely uninspired over the last decade. He's fallen into a rut, wherein he buries himself in bad makeup and under terrible wigs. He wears outlandish costumes, talks in funny accents, and behaves in a manner that gives new meaning to the expression “over the top.” This tendency to embrace weirdo roles hit a nadir with January's Mortdecai, a movie so relentlessly unwatchable that it made his work in last year's execrable Tusk look reasonably okay in comparison. (No easy feat.) Black Mass once again finds Depp physically transforming himself, but the difference is that this time it's all in service of creating an authentic character. Not a caricature, mind you, but an honest-to-goodness character that actually resembles a human being. It's his best work in a very long time.

The film is based on the true story of James “Whitey” Bulger, the notorious Boston gangster. When we meet Bulger, he's a fairly small-time, yet still prominent, criminal. The Italian mafia is encroaching on his territory in the “Southie” section of the city, which makes him none too happy. One day, his childhood friend John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), now an FBI agent, reaches out to him through his politician brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch, doing the worst Boston accent you will ever hear). They strike up a deal in which Bulger provides information that will help the Feds go after a big-time Mafia family. In return, they'll let him do his thing relatively unimpeded, so long as he doesn't murder anyone in the process. Bulger doesn't see this as ratting people out; he views it as a business opportunity. The freedom of this arrangement provides Bulger with a lot of room to expand his dealings, but it also gives a sense of comfort that causes him to slip a little bit on the “no killing” stipulation. The arrival of a new U.S. Attorney in Boston (played by Corey Stoll) marks the beginning of the end for this bizarre relationship between federal agents and a crime kingpin.

Depp is really terrific in the lead role. With a balding head, body padding, and some gnarly false teeth, he barely looks like himself. There are shots where you can't even recognize the famous actor in there. Whereas in pictures like Alice in Wonderland and The Lone Ranger he seemed to use appearance-altering as a substitute for an actual performance, Black Mass finds him using it to enhance the performance. Depp makes Bulger a vulgar figure with a violent side, while also giving glimpses of the charm he uses to cover up some of his more gruesome deeds. We also get a strong sense of Bulger's dependence on loyalty. One perceived slip and he's quick to snuff someone out. The actor shows how that inner rage can be swiftly triggered with nary a second thought. Scenes where he explodes aren't the scariest part, though. That honor goes to an intense scene in which Bulger subtly terrorizes Connolly's wife (Julianne Nicholson). His menace is just below the surface, yet unequivocally visible.

The supporting actors are quite good, as well, each adding a unique bit of flavor. Joel Edgerton is terrific as John Connolly, portraying him as a guy eager to defend a friend, even when he knows that friend is a piece of garbage. Edgerton slowly cranks up Connolly's bravado as the story progresses. The closer his character sidles up to Bulger, the more he gets a high from it. Adam Scott, David Harbour, and Kevin Bacon also deliver fine work as fellow FBI agents, while Rory Cochrane owns every scene he appears in as Bulger's right-hand man. There's something deeply unsettling about the way he stares unblinkingly at murders committed by his boss.

Whitey Bulger had a darkly fascinating story, which Black Mass faithfully recounts. It's hard not to get wrapped up in the criminal wheelings and dealings portrayed. Director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart) provides the film with an appropriately gloomy tone that helps convey the seedy underworld Bulger thrived in. At the same time, the movie is never a whole lot more than a basic recounting of the events, which is its biggest limitation. It doesn't really get into the psyche of Bulger, who was, by all accounts, simultaneously a vicious sociopath and a beloved (by some) community figure. There are some promising early scenes in which he presents as a doting husband (to Dakota Johnson) and father, but that's about it for his softer side. His violent side, meanwhile, is never investigated beyond a surface level. We just know, with unfailing certainty, that it exists. Surely, someone as notable as Whitey Bulger had reasons for his temperament, or things that led to it. Black Mass might have ranked among the best gangster-related films had it tried to get inside his head more to show us what made him tick.

Even if it's no Goodfellas – or even The Departed (which was loosely based on Bulger's story) – Black Mass is an involving look at a bizarre piece of criminal history in which good guys and bad guys improbably ended up working in collaboration. The end titles, which reveal what happened to all the players following the events depicted, show a deep irony in terms of how people were prosecuted. Black Mass, for whatever minor faults it may have, gives a glimpse into how organized crime thrives via a network of connections, favors, old friendships, and abject fear.

It also marks a very welcome return to form for Johnny Depp.

( out of four)

Black Mass is rated R for sequences of violence, sexual content and brief strong language. The running time is 2 hours and 2 minutes.

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