Black Mass (Review)

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⭐⭐⭐⭐ (Excellent)

Director: Scott Cooper
Starring: Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Kevin Bacon, Jesse Plemons, Peter Sarsgaard, Dakota Johnson, Corey Stoll, Rory Cochrane, David Harbour, Julianne Nicholson, Adam Scott, W. Earl Brown, Juno Temple
Certificate: 15
Run Time: 123 mins

‘Black Mass’ is the latest film by director Scott Cooper, who has two films to his name – the critically acclaimed ‘Crazy Heart’ which earned Jeff Bridges an Academy Award and ‘Out Of The Furnace’ which in my opinion, was an almost perfect film but received mixed reviews from critics. ‘Black Mass’ is a crime drama detailing the life of James ‘Whitey’ Bulger who went on the run for 16 years until he was finally caught in 2011 and sentenced to two life sentences plus five years for his crimes. He was on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list during his time on the run. Now this sounds like a fantastic premise and a brilliant opportunity for Scott Cooper to expand on his very promising career. A virtually unrecognisable Johnny Depp plays Whitey Bulger donning slicked-back hair, ageing skin and sky blue eyes. The rest of the cast is a fantastic assembling which comprises of Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch and Kevin Bacon just to name a few. Critics have reacted positively to the film with Depp looking to receive a Best Actor nomination in the upcoming Academy Awards.

‘Black Mass’ is another winner from Scott Cooper – it features some fantastic performances with Johnny Depp in an outstanding turn as Bulger, the script is fantastic and draws heavy inspiration from classics such as ‘The Godfather’ and ‘Goodfellas’ and there are many outstanding sequences that have ‘quotable’ status. The pacing of the film is generally sound, but the film does choose to focus on some aspects of Bulger’s life that perhaps don’t warrant it and this is its main shortcoming. It’s not quite as good as Scott Cooper’s previous film, ‘Out Of The Furnace’ which was a little more subtle and atmospheric in its execution, but it’s still very impressive.

The acting is definitely one of the film’s main strengths –  Johnny Depp is outstanding as Whitey Bulger from his physical transformation to the uncanny mannerisms. He is a very mentally unstable character who eliminates anyone he doesn’t trust and this makes the audience very fearful of him. Depp deserves all the praise he is getting and hopefully he will garner Awards attention. The other standouts are Joel Edgerton as the corrupt John Connolly and his partner, David Harbour as John Morris and Rory Cochrane as one of Bulger’s cronies, Stephen Flemmi. Kevin Bacon and Dakota Johnson are sadly woefully underused. The weak link of the film is Benedict Cumberbatch as Bulger’s brother, William who is the Massachusetts State Senate President. Cumberbatch couldn’t be more different than Johnny Depp in his appearance and his American accent is very poor – Guy Pearce who was originally slated for the role would have been a much better choice.

The film features many outstanding sequences and quotable lines despite obviously being inspired by the great gangster films. The film is at its strongest towards the 2/3 mark where Bulger and Flemmi dine with Connolly and Morris to which Bulger takes a liking to the steak. What follows from a casual conversation quickly tonally shifts into a scene of sheer fear. It’s a wonderful scene and really showcases just how nasty Bulger’s character can be. It doesn’t stop there – shortly afterwards there is another scene hot-on-the-heels of the ‘steak’ scene where Bulger has another extremely uncomfortable moment with Connolly’s wife played by Julianne Nicholson which again is terrifying yet wonderfully acted. This is the film’s main strength – there are so many outstanding sequences where Depp commands and manipulates other characters. The ending for the film is wonderfully executed and this is where the film is highest in tension and its conclusion is very satisfying.

The score by Tom Holkenborg (also known under the pseudonym, ‘Junkie XL’) is sound. It does fill a little ‘over-mixed’ in parts but mostly fits and the last half an hour or so of the film’s score is fantastic. The cinematography is pretty effective as well and Boston looks quite authentic.

The film does skirt along at times and the pacing is  uneven at times. It rushes through Bulger’s relationship with his wife, Lindsey Cyr who has perhaps two scenes before Bulger’s personal life hits rock bottom when his son develops Reye syndrome and dies. The audience are meant to feel for these characters despite not being fully developed. This is also true of the beginning of the film – it dives straight in when a flashback of Bulger’s time at Alcatraz would have been much more effective and would have set the scene a little more.

Another problem the film has is that the stakes are never quite high enough. Despite Bulger constantly bumping off different characters and getting deeper and deeper into the crime underworld, the audience never quite feel immersed into this world except for the ‘steak’ scene where Depp turns his performance up to 11 and is extremely terrifying. This could be perhaps due to Cooper’s direction  as he no experience in the crime drama genre as evident by the film’s inspiration from cinema’s great gangster films.

Ultimately, ‘Black Mass’ is a very good effort by all involved – it’s just a shame it couldn’t have just upped the stakes a little more and it would have been perfect. Johnny Depp is outstanding as Bulger and deserves all the praise he is getting and the film features many memorable sequences and is very quotable. Cooper further cements himself as one of the best directors working at the moment and ‘Black Mass’ showcases his talent to a more mainstream audience. This film also proves that he has a knack for assembling a fantastic cast as evident with ‘Out of the Furnace’ and ‘Crazy Heart’.  It’s one of the best gangster films of recent years – with a couple of changes, this could be near-perfect.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ (Excellent)

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