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Black Mass (Movie Review)


The 1-4-0: Johnny Depp enters the Oscars race with a terrifying portrayal of Boston’s most infamous gangster.

The Gist: James “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp) was Boston’s most notorious mobster… and one of the FBI’s best informants. With an all-star cast, Black Mass follows the rise and fall one of America’s most wanted men in what could be the best true-crime film in years.

What Works: After years of Jack Sparrow and Willy Wonka, it’s easy to forget just how incredibly talented Johnny Depp is as an actor. Virtually unrecognizable under make-up, prosthetics, and icy-blue contacts, Depp disappears into the role, commanding every scene he’s in. In the era of anti-heroes, Depp turns Bulger into a silver screen Walter White, shifting wildly from affable to terrifying, leaving the audience at the edge of their seat. Depp’s performance is the cold black heart of this film, and securing him as the frontrunner for the Oscar.

Joel Edgerton hands in a complex and nuanced performance as FBI agent and Bulger’s handler, John Connolly, whose fall from grace acts as the film’s central spine. Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemons continue to be two of today’s most talented young actors. While Dakota Johnson, Kevin Bacon, Peter Sarsgaard, Rory Cochrane, Julianne Nicholson, and Adam Scott all turn in excellent performances, deserving any and all superlatives one can find to describe their work in this film.

Scott Cooper’s direction shines through while Masanobu Takayanagi’s cinematography is at once beautiful and bone chilling, creating one the best true-crime dramas in recent memory. The film grips the audience by the throat, from the opening shot to the moment Bulger drives off into hiding, daring you to catch your breath as it stares down on you with dead, blue eyes.

What Doesn’t Work: It is impossible to watch this film and not instantly compare it to Martin Scorsese’s The Departed, which was heavily inspired by Bulger’s career, with Jack Nicholson’s Frank Costello in everyway a stand-in for Bulger. However, The Departed remains the superior film, due to Black Mass’s lack of a satisfying ending. Real life is messy, and not everyone is handed a climatic ending to their respective stories, but when it comes to Whitey Bulger, the end of his story was national news. That the filmmakers would choose to present Bulger’s capture after a nearly two-decade long manhunt as a brief coda, turns what should have been a supremely satisfying conclusion into an afterthought, weakening the film as a whole.

Pay or Nay: Pay. Johnny Depp’s performance, Cooper’s direction, and Takayanagi’s cinematography create a tense movie going experience. Added to that a cast of Hollywood’s best and brightest, Black Mass is an above average true-crime drama that overcomes it’s less than stellar ending.

Rated: R for brutal violence, language throughout, some sexual references and brief drug use
Release Date: September 18, 2015
Screenplay: Mark Mallouk, Jez Butterworth
Director(s): Scott Cooper
Starring: Johnny Depp, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dakota Johnson, Joel Edgerton, Kevin Bacon, Peter Sarsgaard, Adam Scott, Corey Stoll
Distributor: Warner Bros
Film Genre: Biography, Crime, Drama

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