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Movie Review: 'Black Mass'

Is the slow-burn gangster flick Black Mass worthy of recent Oscar talk? Read on to find out!

Review by Matt Cummings

For all the hype that 2015 has promised in terms of box office performance, we've experienced very little in the way of Oscar contenders. Usually, that arrives in October and barrels through Christmas with all the elegance of a load hauler. In a year that's seen more Oscar bait than catch, Black Mass arrives with a bat, a gun, and a terrific performance by Depp who feels like he's about to use both on us.

James “Whitey” Bulger (Depp) is everything that encompasses a good Boston gangster: a receding hairline and sharp steely eyes that give nothing away as to how vicious a leader he really is. Starting in 1975, Bulger begins his rise as leader of the Winter Hill Gang, a troupe of hard-hitting Italians and Irish boys looking to carve out their place in the difficult but loyal South Boston streets. Enter the rising FBI star John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), who's also Bulger's childhood friend: both want to see the Italians muscled out, and soon the two form a unique friendship. Bulger will supply intel to Connolly about their shared rivals, while Connolly looks the other way as Bulger drug deals and kills his way to the top. More than a simple thug, Bulger's a devoted father, a bruising fullback for his state senator brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch), and a cold manipulator to the naive Connolly. Soon, the agent is awash in money, clothes, and prestige, deflecting the FBI to the true nature of their association, until their leader (Kevin Bacon) begins to realize he's not only been double-crossed, but has invited the devil himself to dinner.

Black Mass feels like cinematic opera with knuckles, each move carefully choreographed by Depp and Director Scott Cooper. Depp doesn't merely play the gangster, he inhabits Bulger, something he's rarely done of late. In fact, you'd have to go back to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas to find a better performance. He plays the sober, plotting murderer like one of those huge South American snakes that lies in wait ready to attack a helicopter, because all of the living creatures have smartly run off. From the moment we gaze upon his creepy eye inserts, Depp has us cornered. He keeps the film going when the plot gets stuck, creeps us out when he fondles Connolly's wife (Julianne Nicholson), and shocks us with his ultra-violent responses. Without Depp, Mass is an entirely different experience.

I've never felt that Edgerton was worth all the accolades afforded him, and with Mass I'm only slightly more impressed. I can always imagine multiple actors getting more out of his roles, but here he does manage to play both sides against one another, pocketing the riches behind his indifference towards Bulger's movements but ready to arrest a major mob boss by driving him to the station himself. It's only near the end as the rope tightens that Edgerton doesn't quite know what to do. And this is where a creative wedge occurs that eventually leaves Mass with less than what it started.

This is an ensemble piece, filling every nook and cranny with enough story to tell a four-hour version; and that's the problem. Dakota Johnson - who plays Depp's wife - disappears after Act 1, Peter Skarsgaard makes what feels like an overblown cameo, as does an Act 3 Corey Stall as the hotshot DA planning to take down the entire system. None of them, including Adam Scott with a strange FBI porn-stache, get the time to delve into their characters, which I'm guessing wouldn't have amounted to much anyways. But because they're big stars, we expect them to receive some quality development. Find great character actors instead, and the audience raves about Cooper's smart casting.

Cooper does capture the 70s/80s quite well, although I could have had a bit more VCR filter than 1080p experience, a problem that the home experience might correct. He's also smart enough to use the sharpened knife that is Depp's ability to embody a character, without cutting the audience during a prison riot. His decision to point the talent in the right direction proves worthy time and time again, as the story gracefully moves through its slow-burn nuances. He also makes Bulger look like a hero to those around him, a complex and even sympathetic figure at points who merely uses these sides to gain access to what he desires. When tragedy befalls Bulger, we actually feel sorry for him, just before we see him murder a hooker or a snitch. It's that sort of trickery which I love about the film. Black Mass is not a run-of-the-mill, diet drama with a new pop song that plays in the end credits: it's as slow-burn as you're going to get, complete with its fair share of horrific violence to wake you up when the energy begins to wane.

It's possible that Black Mass could do very good numbers, but its slow-burn and huge cast will probably keep date-night couples away. But for those of us starving for anything of quality since August, this one will no doubt satisfy. Whether it's good enough to stick around come Oscar time will probably depend on how many of those couples give the film a chance. I think they should.

Black Mass is rated R for brutal violence, language throughout, some sexual references and brief drug use and has a runtime 122 minutes.

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