black_mass_2Year: 2015
Director: Scott Cooper
Writer(s): Mark Mallouk, Jez Butterworth
Region of Origin: US
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Rating: R
35mm, Color, 122 mins

Synopsis: The true story of Whitey Bulger, the brother of a state senator and the most infamous violent criminal in the history of South Boston, who became an FBI informant to take down a Mafia family invading his turf. (Source)

Black Mass is a tempest of a film that exposes the tragedy, drama, suspense and intrigue of its characters as they slowly but surely have their lives pulled out from underneath them. This is a rare case in which the end result is saved by the tiny details of Scott Cooper’s direction, from the spot on performances, grainy 35mm photography, lavish production design and Tom Holkenborg’s (ditching the Junkie XL moniker for this dramatic project) score, which is a key element in playing up the sadness on screen.

The story starts in 1975 when we meet James “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp), known as Jimmy to his friends and family. As the leader of the Winter Hill gang, Bulger forms an alliance with childhood friend turned FBI Agent, John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) thanks to a meeting with James’ sibling senator Billy Bulger (Benedict Cumberbatch). As an unofficial informant to the FBI, Jimmy Bulger is asked to provide key information to help bring down the Italian Mafia, but does little to abide by their condition of no killing, causing Connolly to spin all the stories he can to protect him.

Really, it’s the film’s presentation which creates an inescapable tone of psychological dread. Stefania Cella’s production design transports the viewer back to the era of Bulger’s time in the Winter Hill Gang without shouting at the viewer that we’re in a period drama. Shot on 35mm, the film has a grainy, dirty patina that lends itself beautifully nighttime events which evoke uncertainty. Cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi beautifully lights dinner scenes to isolate the fragility and unease around characters. Holkenborg’s music seals the deal, impacting us with a troubled cello melody that keeps morphing throughout the film.

black_mass_1If there’s a standout to the film, it’s Edgerton, who is a great foil to Depp’s cold, calm, and calculating Bulger. As Connolly, we see Edgerton squirm, sweat, panic, and eventually come to crushing realizations regarding his involvement in the very crimes he denies have occurred. Though Johnny Depp’s performance is getting all the attention, it really is Joel Edgerton’s performance that steals the entire film. He’s a great foil to Depp’s cold, calm and calculating Bulger. As Connolly, we see Edgerton squirm, sweat, panic, and eventually come to crushing realizations regarding his involvement in the very crimes he denies have occurred. Edgerton’s lead isn’t surprising however, his previous effort in The Gift (both behind and in front of the camera) earlier this summer was brilliant, and now Black Mass proves that he’s a force to be reckoned with.

I can’t remember the last time I saw a film where every single performance was incredible. Films with major actors in every role often end up wasting actors with little screen time. Black Mass finds a way for every single thespian to bring their absolute best to one of the most intense crime dramas this year. Rory Cochrane heads up the backing cast as Stephen Flemmi, Whitey’s right hand man, while scenes at Boston’s FBI headquarters are ruled by great moments with actors Adam Scott, Kevin Bacon, and Corey Stoll.

Come awards season, Black Mass’ performances will leave everyone talking. The film tells the story of men caught in their own game of cops and robbers with their judgments (particularly Connolly’s) clouded by their own childhood loyalties. It’s a focused character study into the tragedy of those closely associated with the notorious, savage James “Whitey” Bulger.

EDV