The buzz in Hollywood claims Johnny Depp is already a shoe-in for a nomination for Best Actor for his performance in BLACK MASS. The trade magazines and pundits are claiming it’s a done deal. Depp is always good. His, or his agent’s selection of material is questionable, but his performances are always top-notch. The breakfast scene alone in BLACK MASS clearly demonstrates Depp’s onscreen presence. But, really, the story here is Joel Edgerton. He is truly Oscar worthy. His performance outshines even Depp’s. Unfortunately, if Depp is nominated, he may have to settle for Best Supporting Actor if the studio pushes Depp for Best Actor, and there always seems to be more competition in that category.
BLACK MASS is one of the best ensemble dramas of the year. It tells the story of famed Irish gangster James “Whitey” Bulger and his rise from small time hood to criminal kingpin. The film seemed outmoded, as there are already two documentaries on Bulger, one of which was an Oscar contender last year. Bulger’s story became celluloid fodder after his capture in California in 2011.
BLACK MASS deals primarily with the relationship of Bulger (Depp) and his childhood friend John Connolly (Edgerton). Raised on the streets of South Boston, Bulger and Connolly form a tight rapport that carries over into adulthood where Bulger has chosen a life of crime and Connolly is an agent for the FBI. The relationship is a win-win situation for a while, and then the cords of friendship become unraveled. In a domino effect, the relationship and its undoing affect the lives of a multitude of people, often with devastating consequences.
The cinematography by Masanobu Takayanagi is fitting for the era. He incorporates the usually troublesome New York style imagery, with its trademark grainy and gritty look. For this film, it works well. Editor David Rosenbloom, as is the penchant in Tinseltown, made the film too long. Even though it clocks in at two hours, the latter scenes become redundant. Viewers already know Bulger is a criminal, so one or two murders, especially the sequence with the hooker, could easily have danced on the editing room floor. There is also sweeping orchestration by Junkie XL, who provides a soundtrack worthy of John Williams. This is a little out of Junkie XL’s milieu. To this point, his specialty has been action films, which he scores with aplomb. This soundtrack opens a new page to his status as a Hollywood music force.
The title is a misnomer. Generally a BLACK MASS conjures images of devil worship and demonology. To suggest those themes are present in this film is certainly a stretch. Writer Mark Mallouk pieces together a gangster tale that dwells on fundamental relationships and not the criminal activity. When the FBI situation room spouts off Bulger’s criminal activities, viewers, while privy to the murders, are not shown the bread and butter crimes that help propel Bulger to kingpin. While I personally am fine with this screenwriting omission, other viewers may question Bulger’s validity, not having them detailed visually.
The problem with BLACK MASS is a problem that often plagues ensemble cast films; many actors give fine performances that are ignored to propel the main stars. Even stars who are reduced to extended cameos in BLACK MASS, such as Benedict Cumberbatch (with a ‘b’), Corey Stall and Kevin Bacon, offer exceptional performances. Though supporting roles, they help make BLACK MASS worthy of the price of admission.
The moral of BLACK MASS does not appear to be avoiding a life of crime. It is presented more as knowing when friendships and loyalty need to be placed on a backburner for personal good. And, of course, never mess with the Italians. Bulger’s entire world collapsed after he messed with the Italians. Good lesson to learn.
RATING = 9/10