Every year a slew of films (many of them Oscar contenders) include the intriguing title card, “Based on a True Story.” Inexplicably, this also seems to imbue the film with the weight of reality, even if we only ever see a fictionalized, heavily altered version of the story. True crime films take this one step further, indulging our collective interest in individuals who function outside of established social orders, giving us a glimpse of the dark underbelly of the world in which we live. There is, admittedly, a romanticism to the archetype of the outlaw: a person with power who says and does what they want. Why has Scarface proven such an enduring film? People admire Tony Montana, despite his faults (murderous rage, massive coke habit, questionable hair, etc.), because he is the agent of his own destiny, making his way in an unkind world.
Black Mass, despite being a crime film, (thankfully) does not follow in this tradition. Instead, it shows the ugliness of the world in which these figures operate, painting a wholly unlikeable picture of pretty much everyone involved. Though not explicitly explained, the title of Black Mass refers to the unholy alliance between the FBI and the crime lord Whitey Bulger, of South Boston. In the 1970s, FBI agent John Connolly returned to South Boston intent on quickly rising through the ranks of its FBI department. Having grown up in Southie as it’s called, Connolly already had a relationship with the Bulgers, James (also called “Whitey”), and Billy, the family’s golden child. Whitey went on to become the leader of a vicious group called the Winter Hill gang while his brother became a state senator. Connolly, seeing an opportunity to benefit from this old relationship, contacted Whitey, offering to help him eliminate his enemies (mainly the Italian mob) in return for Whitey giving up certain information about organized crime in the Boston area. Though concerned with being labelled a “rat,” Whitey eventually agreed, leading to a relationship that would last the better part of twenty years, in which Whitey and his gang acted with near complete impunity.
The strength of Black Mass lies in its performances. The film lives and dies on the strength of Whitey Bulger’s character. Thankfully, Bulger here is played by Johnny Depp, giving his most invigorating performance in years. Personally, I find the whole Johnny Depp comeback narrative a bit insulting to an actor who is usually the best part of whatever he is in, despite fluctuating critical reception. I’ve never seen him phone-in a performance and he continues to do strong work here, completely disappearing into the role of Whitey with distinct mannerisms, a convincing Southie accent, and a receding hairline, gaunt cheekbones, and a particularly unsettling pair of blue contacts. Though many of his deeds are monstrous, Depp succeeds in showing Whitey to be a human being rather than merely an archetype. To him, the violence that he enacts is the only logical response to the situation at hand. There are no outlandish loose cannons to deal with in this film. However, unlike the aforementioned Tony Montana, whose one good deed proved to be his downfall, there are no redemptive qualities to Whitey, which is refreshing given the often very kid-gloves-ish approach many films take to judging criminal figures. In fact, Black Mass is overwhelmingly bleak, offering very little in the way of levity (one of the film’s only humorous bits is promptly followed by a strangling), with nearly every scene being bookended by the haunting cello score. However, this does not take away from the experience, but rather enhances the disturbing nature of the narrative taking place. Given the strength of the Depp’s performance and the true crime nature of the story, I’m pretty certain that Depp will receive an Oscar nomination for his efforts; how well he’ll fare in the crowded upcoming season remains to be seen, but his performance is certainly worthy of distinction.
Depp is ably supported by Joel Edgerton, who plays the second part of this two-hander. Edgerton is always putting out strong work (and is particularly spectacular in Warrior, one of my favorite films). He continues that trend here, making Connolly a slimy, yet believable doofus who, despite his initial cleverness, is on the road to failure and discovery far sooner than he realizes. Though charming and manipulative, Edgerton does well in showing Connolly’s gradual unravelling as his idyllic home and professional life begin to collapse as the years roll on, mostly due to his own ineptitude and lack of foresight. Though as deserving as Depp of an Oscar nod (seriously, the dude has a strong Australian accent in real life, and his Bostonian accent here is superb. Yeah, yeah, I know, acting, but still, very impressive) it will be interesting to see whether he receives any awards recognition, especially due to his current modest star power. If anything, hopefully this will help jettison him into the public spotlight a bit more since he is one of the best working actors around right now and deserving of success.
Depp and Edgerton are aided by an extremely large cast of supporting players including Benedict Cumberbatch, Corey Stoll, Kevin Bacon, Jesse Plemons, Adam Scott, Dakota Johnson, Juno Temple, and perhaps most memorably, Peter Sarsgaard. Everyone here is on their game, except for a few inconsistent accents. Otherwise each makes an impression with their brief time in the film. Sienna Miller was also supposed to be in this film as Whitey’s girlfriend during his time on the run in Santa Monica after his relationship with John Connolly was uncovered. However, given the runtime and pacing issues, the latter California chapter was cut. Much has been made of this, but I think it was probably for the better; the movie begins in Boston and ends in Boston, which seems fitting in a way.
Directed by Scott Cooper, of Crazy Heart and Out of the Furnace fame, Black Mass paints a grim picture of Boston, casting the city in varying hues of blue and gray (with the occasional splash of red). Cooper, through creative camera angles and a few, well-placed lingering shots, creates an unsettling atmosphere that reeks of potential violence – a good thing for a crime film. He is aided by cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi, who also lensed Warrior, The Grey, and Silver Linings Playbook, three of my favorite films. His camera work is always thoughtful and evocative and I wouldn’t be surprised if he was also in the running for a nod this year as well.
As you can probably tell, I really enjoyed Black Mass. It is one of the finest performance pieces I’ve seen this year and a great entry into the crime genre. Its true-life ugliness and unbelievable story only strengthen its potency. I’m curious to see how it will do in the crowed awards season ahead, but regardless of academy recognition, it is still an excellent film.