Review: Black Mass

by Andrew Osborne

So, back in the day, my dad taught some of the children of both Whitey Bulger’s associates and their victims.  I also live close to Whitey’s old Winter Hill stomping grounds, and I’m a homer for Boston crime movies in general.

In other words, I might not be all that objective when it comes to Black Mass, but I’ll go ahead and give it a thumbs-up anyway.

I’ve only read one review so far, which mainly groused how the Boston accents were all over the place (yes: a constant problem with productions set here in the Bay State) and also how the movie white-washes systemic FBI corruption by putting all the blame on one rogue agent for the endless “get out of jail free” cards (and worse) that Whitey received from the authorities during his years as Boston’s prevailing crime kingpin.

Which…sure, maybe.  Plus Johnny Depp’s bizarre Nosferatu make-up takes some getting used to — he’s EVIL, see? — but unlike, say, Jack Nicholson in The Departed, I definitely bought the character as a ruthless, scary sociopath eventually.

And that speaks to what sets Black Mass apart from most crime films (Boston baked or otherwise), i.e., this is one of the least fun, least sexy depictions of the underworld since Ralph Cifaretto murdered poor Tracee at the Bada Bing.

Scott Cooper’s production is filled with ugliness, from the cramped Southie neighborhoods and grey concrete of Government Center to the brutal hard luck maps of the characters’ faces (especially a rogue’s gallery of local actors and Jesse Plemons, who was seemingly locked in the trunk of a car for a week before filming his scenes).

Bulger’s treatment of female characters and W. Earl Brown’s unflashy, unflinching hit man John Martorano are particularly chilling — while the performances of Rory Cochrane and Peter Sarsgaard capture the miserable dead-end grind of criminal life.

Joel Edgerton and Julianne Nicholson are also strong as the cocky FBI agent who thinks he can play in Whitey’s world without getting played and his far more realistic wife.

Benedict Cumberbatch seems miscast as Whitey’s “respectable” brother Billy, and Adam Scott’s mustachioed mug kept pulling me out of the movie (simply because he’s overplayed arch detachment in too many previous projects).  The relationships and characterizations in general are fairly shallow (an inherent problem with films about sociopaths), though Depp’s Bulger is humanized in ways that rightly don’t allow us to really sympathize with him.

And while Black Mass skips over plenty of potentially juicy material and ultimately doesn’t add up to much beyond the sum of its parts, Cooper nevertheless delivers some well-paced true crime filmmaking that earns bonus points for de-romanticizing the exploits of its subjects (while also sucking way less than Mystic River).

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