“It’s not what you do. It’s when and where you do it. And who you do it to, or with”, A strong lesson from a transformed Johnny Depp in Black Mass; a film following the criminal career of infamous Irish-American mobster James “Whitey” Bulger. In a long awaited return to form, Depp portrays the protagonist with reptilian coldness, disappearing behind bleached blond hair and light blue contact lenses to bring to the screen the most notorious gangster in US History.
The film focuses on the ascent of Bulger’s Winter Hill Gang to dominance over organised crime in South Boston, and Bulger’s role as informant for the FBI in order to combat a challenge to his supremacy by the rival Anguilo Brothers during the 1970s.
Using the protection afforded to him by the bureau as cover, Bulger escalates his criminal activities, consolidating and expanding his influence over “Southie” whilst also relying on family ties to secure his reputation. The lessons Bulger supplies his son represent a microcosm for the film’s theme; the loyalty of family and friends is of paramount importance, and a betrayal of “Jimmy’s” trust can spell death if he discovers it.
Such a theme is the crux of the film; interspersed throughout Jez Butterworth’s narrative are interviews with Bulger’s former friends and colleagues, themselves ironically turned informant against Jimmy to mitigate their own prison sentences. Never heavy- handed and always interesting, each session spurs the story on; a sharp juxtaposition to Bulger’s illusion of control through the loyalty of his friends. As Jimmy tells his son, “If nobody sees it, it didn’t happen”; more operative words were never spoken, and Bulger’s fate is spelled out almost from the beginning. Strong supporting performances from Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemons all help to give an insight into the world in which Bulger operated; Mobsters dining with FBI agents, siblings employed in state government, and youngsters taught lessons of loyalty to family over everything else.
Scott Cooper’s confident direction is a little poorly paced at times, detracting from the story in such a way that complete absorption is never truly possible, however cinematography by Masanobu Takayanagi (Silver Linings Playbook, Warrior, The Grey) provides the film with a beautifully assured splendour. It isn’t often that one can comment on the beautiful lighting of a scene where a man is shot to death in broad daylight in the middle of a car park, yet here we are. Under Takayanagi’s gaze, each scene takes on added importance; from brazen attacks in the sunshine to show Bulger’s untouchability, to the shaded rooms of the FBI where clandestine activities and admissions of betrayal take precedence.
Thus Black Mass is a flawed film, particularly regarding its pacing and direction, yet strong performances from the cast lift it beyond a mere biopic, ensuring its quality not just as such, but as a crime film who’s starring actor has experienced the beginning of a sparkling renaissance. Welcome back to The Town, and welcome back Johnny Depp.
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