Sunday, 13 September 2015

BLACK MASS - Review By Greg Klymkiw - TIFF 2015: A solid cast in search of a good movie

Black Mass (2015)
Dir. Scott Cooper
Starring: Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch,
Kevin Bacon, Jesse Plemons, Peter Sarsgaard, Rory Cochrane,
Adam Scott, Dakota Johnson, Mary Klug, Corey Stoll

Review By Greg Klymkiw

Joe Berlinger's Whitey: The United States of America V. James J. Bulger (2014) is a modern masterpiece. It tells the same story as Scott Cooper's Black Mass, but aside from a genuinely solid cast working overtime and a few directorial frissons, the latter is little more than a derivative, often dull dramatic exercise in style. This ultra-violent homage to much better pictures like Goodfellas, which it desperately wants to be, really has little going for it, save for its stalwart performances.

Berlinger's modern classic is an alternately terrifying and heartbreaking documentary exposé of Boston mobster Whitey Bulger, his protection at the hands of the FBI and the suffering of his hundreds of victims. It's the perspectives of the victims which gives Berlinger's film its oomph, but alas, Cooper's picture is saddled with a by-the-numbers screenplay by Jez Butterworth and Mark Mallouk which does little more than blast through key high points of Bulger's "career".

Bulger was an asshole and psychopath of the first order. This places Black Mass immediately at a disadvantage. There's clearly no room for redemption and the only change of any consequence is just how appalling Bulger's actions become. Though Cooper interestingly (albeit too briefly) focuses on the odd family dynamic between Bulger, his Massachusetts State Senator brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch) and their tough, accepting Mom (Mary Klug), all that's really left to target is Bulger's 30-year history as an FBI informant, set-up by his old neighbourhood chum, FBI agent John Connolly (superbly played by Joel Edgerton). Bulger is given complete immunity to commit horrific crimes so the FBI can get the dope on the Italian mob whom our "hero" is attempting to rub out so his Winter Hill Gang can completely control all criminal activities in Boston.

Much will be made of Depp's performance as Bulger and he does indeed seem to be having the time of his life mugging malevolently under a variety of insane makeup designs. It's hardly a departure from most of his flamboyant excess and though it delivers prime entertainment value (to a point), the fact remains that he has delivered much better work in pictures like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, The Ninth Gate, Donnie Brasco and especially Ed Wood and, for that matter, most of his collaborations with Tim Burton. Hell, I even love his work as Tonto in The Lone Ranger.

Unfortunately his toils here are merely showy. The ho-hum screenplay doesn't really provide a strong-enough adversary for Bulger to play against. This wasn't a problem in Berlinger's great documentary since he placed the lion's share of focus upon one of Bulger's victims who delivers some of the most chilling moments in the film and all throughout the picture fears for his life (and indeed was rubbed out during the film's shooting and Bulger trial). All Depp has to work with here are his enablers, henchmen and virtually faceless rivals whom he stylishly dispatches.

It's the human factor that's missing right across the board and without it, both Depp and his talented director Cooper are lost at sea in a dinghy with no oars. Though I have little use for his overrated Crazy Heart, Cooper previously infused his superb crime film Out of the Furnace with a scary creep factor as well as considerable humanity. All that's left in Black Mass is plenty of creepy.

Creepy is always good, but when it's really the only thing driving a picture, it eventually loses steam and by extension, so too does Black Mass.


Black Mass enjoys its Canadian Premiere as a TIFF Special Presentation at TIFF 2015. For tix, times, venues, dates visit the TIFF website HERE. The film opens wide on September 18, 2015 via Warner Bros.