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Cinema || Black Mass (Darkness Unbound)

The primary challenge that any filmmaker has to contend with when one attempts to make a gangster flick is to live up to the unrelenting standard set by one Martin Scorsese. Since director Scott Cooper chose to make what can essentially be called a ‘semi-biopic’ on the life and crimes of the South Boston Irish mobster James ‘Whitey’ Bulger, his film is bound to attract comparisons with the one Scorsese film that managed to secure him the coveted Academy Award for Best Director after a string of unfulfilled nominations.

Scorsese’s 2006 adaptation of the Hong Kong film ‘Infernal Affairs’, ‘The Departed’ was not only based in Boston but shades of James Bulger and his myriad antics were the starting point for Scorsese as he painted Jack Nicholson’s Irish crime lord Frank Costello.

Reportedly attempting to make a film not on criminals with hues of humanity but about humans, who simply have a penchant for criminal activities, Cooper does end up glorifying, if not glamourising, the despicable brutality with which Bulger conducted his reign of terror – supported in part by his quietly apathetic brother (who also happened to be a state senator) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation itself, who looked the other way more often than not since Bulger was a confidential informant for the bureau who would keep them appraised about his rivals’ courses of action.

Bulger also had the distinction of being something of a folk hero in his neighbourhood, the majority of whom being Irish, probably felt a sense of loyalty towards the man for being a powerful racial representative, even as he poisoned his own quarters with a free influx of drugs.

Glorifying crimes is not why ‘Black Mass’ falls short of expectations. A film with a trailblazing antihero admittedly has its own charms. However, the punch is necessarily missing in the screenplay by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterword (based on the book by Boston Globe journalists Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill), which has an unkempt feel to its order, despite moments and situations that can be weighed in gold. Especially noteworthy are a few of the earlier scenes which pits Bulger with his wife and young son; or the heartwrenching sequence where Bulger comes to terms with the imminent death of the said son. These treatments are credibly executed, however erratic the trajectory of Bulger’s rise and subsequent downfall might have turned out to be in the long haul.

One of the finest actors of our generation, Johnny Depp, portrays the vicious James Bulger with an intensity befitting the merciless mobster. Greying hair slicked back, clinging to the top of his nearly bald head, coupled with opaque contact lenses give Depp’s persona a quintessential ‘deathly’ appearance that aids him significantly in essaying the fearful attitude and countenance of Bulger. Depp is surprisingly majestic in this threatening avatar, effortlessly indulging in acts that bear the potential to subtly scar any sensitive psyche. It will be of little surprise if Depp goes on to win a host of official accolades for such a searing portrayal which will undoubtedly rank among his best.

The real James Bulger

Dakota Johnson as Bulger’s wife Lindsey shines in the few scenes she shares with Depp. Also notable is Benedict Cumberbatch as Bulger’s senator of a brother William, whose presence is remarkably convincing, if brief.

FBI operative and the Bulgers’ childhood neighbour and friend, who happened to be the one to bring the Irish mob boss under the purview of the bureau, John Connoly is efficiently enacted by the Australian thespian Joel Edgerton (the only major character in the film whose Boston accent does not appear ‘forced’). Connoly’s desperate ambition to bring down the Italian mafia rings, which leads him to the ill-fated alliance with Bulger that escalates to an uneasy high and subsequent collapse, is meticulously brought to life by Edgerton. As a matter of fact, the consequences of a chunk of the criminal activities unseen on screen is depicted with the help of Connoly’s reactions to the same and it is apt to say Edgerton performs his gamut of responsibilities to perfection.

With a musical score by veteran composes Junkie XL that is faintly reminiscent of the Scorsese films and editing (by David Rosenbloom) that could have benefited from the economy of a Thelma Schoonmaker, ‘Black Mass’ is certainly not the most entertaining or edifying of the gangster films but it is certainly worth a watch and a good word or two thanks to impressive on-screen performances from a set of actors who have given it all to a cinematic effort they have chosen to believe in. []

Film: Black Mass
Directed by Scott Cooper
Released on September 18, 2015
Written by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterword (based on the book by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill)


First Published: CultureCult Magazine, Issue One: October 2015

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