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Depp Brings to Life a Mobsters Rise

                Four years ago I remember hearing in the news of the arrest of “Whitey” Bulger a notorious gangster active in the 1970s and 80s. He had been a fugitive at large for over a decade and now in his elder years had finally been caught and given two life sentences (despite only having one life to serve). The story was notable, it looked like our era’s “Eichmann in Argentina” catch, but I didn’t know much about his story and the news just slipped my mind. It came back to mind and vividly, when I went to see Black Mass starring Johnny Depp.
                Directed by Scott Cooper, Black Mass is the story of Jimmy “Whitey” Bulger’s (Depp) rise to power and how it was made possible by the FBI. Agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) who grew up in the same neighbourhood recruits the Irish criminal to be an informant for the FBI so they can wipe out an Italian mafia family that’s been running Boston’s organized crime scene. However Bulger soon begins to use this position of relative immunity and influence to consolidate power for his Winter Hill Gang, while at the same time Connolly walks the fine line of upstanding agent and corrupt accessory to crime.
                There’s a definite feel of colourlessness to this film, the general seediness of the focussed-on areas of Boston underline the dangerous environment we’re inhabiting. These are so convincingly rendered as the recesses of American crime and this gritty world is equally complemented by its cast of characters. This is a film characterized by some powerhouse performances. After years and years of the same awful typecasting, I’m proud to say Johnny Depp is back! It’s hard to believe this film where he is multifaceted, grippingly engaging, chillingly violent, and terrifying came out the same year as Mortdecai! It really is an Oscar calibre performance and what we’ve been waiting for from Depp for a decade! Joel Edgerton is also not to be overlooked turning out another tremendous performance, acutely capturing his character’s unknowing descent into Bulger’s grasp. There is a great ensemble around them too, including Benedict Cumberbatch as Bulger’s politician brother (though his accent could use some work), Julianne Nicholson, Dakota Johnson, Jesse Plemmons, Peter Sarsgaard, David Harbour, Rory Cochrane, Corey Stoll, Adam Scott, and Kevin Bacon! In addition to these, the film boasts solid directing and writing. The screenplay (co-written by accomplished playwright Jez Butterworth) gives the characters the intensity to keep you on edge. It should also be emphasized how well the characters interact off each other. The clashing of conscience between characters in the FBI scenes provides for some addictive drama. And of particular note is a scene between Bulger and Connolly’s wife which is so creepily magnetic, and another scene where Bulger grills FBI Agent Morris over dinner. These scenes and Depp’s portrayal amount to creating a viscerally unpredictable and dangerous character both in Bulger and the tone of the film itself.
                Black Mass is certainly one of the strongest films of the year telling a fascinating true story of a fascinating person. It’s one of the best gangster films of recent years highlighted by effective tension, a bleak tone, and not to mention two amazingly superb performances from Depp and Edgerton. The film is kept from being great due to some minor characters and plot points becoming confused if not followed closely, some sequences that drag too much, and admittedly a lack of emotional tether. It’s not going to be one of the classics of the genre. But because by and large it works so well, it’s definitely worth checking out. 

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