Film and TV

Reviews For The Easily Distracted:
Black Mass

Title: Black Mass

Describe This Movie In One Simpsons Quote: "All this drinking, violence, destruction of property...are these the things we think of when we think of the Irish?"

Rating Using Random Objects Relevant To The Film: Three Anton LaVeys out of five.

Brief Plot Synopsis: FBI gets in bed with Irish mob, ends up fecked.

Tagline: "Keep your enemies close."

Better Tagline: "Paddy whacked."

Not So Brief Plot Synopsis: In Boston in the late 1970s, the FBI was so desperate to stop the Mafia (represented by the Patriarca family), it was willing to enlist the aid of James "Whitey" Bulger (Johnny Depp), head of the Irish Winter Hill Gang. In the truest personification of "the enemy of my enemy is my friend," the Feds — at the urging of Agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) — promised to stay out of Bulger's affairs if he fed them information about the Mafia. Bulger, naturally, used this opportunity to consolidate power. Connolly, not coincidentally a childhood friend of Bulger's, benefited from this arrangement as well. Surprisingly, the FBI didn't take kindly to this.

"Critical" Analysis: Black Mass is not, fundamentally, a bad movie. Director Scott Cooper demonstrated an ability to juggle talent-heavy casts in Crazy Heart and Out of the Furnace, while the story itself (based on Dick Lehr and Gerard O'Neill's book) was such a perfect cinematic blend of corruption and violence, pre-production was probably only waiting for the closure provided by Bulger's eventual arrest (in 2011).

On top of that, you have Depp. It's easy to forget, watching him sleep-lurch through Pirates of the Caribbean: The Child Support's Due, that the guy used to be considered — if not one of his generation's most promising actors — at least one of its most interesting to watch. Here, perhaps for this first time this decade, we get a look at Classic Depp (not to worry, New Depp will be back in 2017). Fitted with disturbing blue contacts (like a doll's eyes), he's a chilling presence. Depp is also comfortable in Bulger's skin, alternately pitiless and remorselessly opportunistic, as he makes Connolly and his partner John Morris (David Harbour) jump through hoops to cover for his crimes.

The rest of the players are no slouches either. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Bulger's younger brother, state Senator Billy Bulger (though the one acting achievement Mr. Smaug-Turing appears incapable of is an Irish accent). You've also got Corey Stoll as dogged U.S. attorney Fred Wyshak, Peter Sarsgaard as a jumpy button man and Adam Scott as a, er, Guy with a Mustache. Plus: Kevin Bacon! Jesse Plemons! Oh, and Dakota Johnson

Johnson gets her first opportunity to scrub away the stench of Fifty Shades of Grey, playing Bulger's common-law wife, Lindsey Cyr. It's nice to be proven wrong about her. She was the only halfway decent (no pun intended) part of Fifty Shades, and she's very good here, drawing out one of the rawer performances we've seen from Depp.

But while Cooper allows his actors their breath, he never really brings Black Mass to life (self five!). Maybe it's because we've seen so many gangster films, many already based on real-life events and personages, but there's nothing here you won't see coming a mile away: betrayals, downfalls and hits telegraphed as soon as the character appears on screen, condemned by Bulger's reptilian stare and almost a century's worth of gangster movie tropes.

And while narrowing the scope to Bulger and Connolly makes sense from a narrative standpoint, it exposes one of the film's biggest flaws. Namely, Connolly's motivations. His initial enthusiasm is chalked up to his hatred of the Mob, but it soon becomes apparent Connolly is enjoying the fringe benefits of the arrangement, even though the transition in their relationship from adversaries to business partners is barely touched upon.

Hell, Cooper almost certainly realized this, and (initially) tries to present Black Mass as a more Gothic take on the genre. Bulger dwells in shadow, even in a Miami nightclub, and Junkie XL's score is appropriately foreboding. But comparisons to Martin Scorsese, like the period clothes and decade-appropriate sound track, are inevitable. Scorsese did the gritty gangster pic first and arguably better than anyone else ever will, and has even already done the Bulger story. The Departed was certainly a more lively affair, but that was mostly thanks to lifting the plot of Andrew Lau's Internal Affairs and dropping it in Beantown.

Black Mass is in theaters today. Now go get your shine box.
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Peter Vonder Haar writes movie reviews for the Houston Press and the occasional book. The first three novels in the "Clarke & Clarke Mysteries" - Lucky Town, Point Blank, and Empty Sky - are out now.
Contact: Pete Vonder Haar