In 1970s South Boston, FBI Agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) persuades his childhood friend now Irish mobster Jimmy 'Whitey' Bulger (Johnny Depp) to collaborate with the FBI in order to eliminate their common enemy: the Italian mob. But this unholy alliance spirals out of control, allowing Whitey to evade law enforcement while consolidating his power and becoming one of the most ruthless and dangerous gangsters in Boston history. (Based on a true story.)
Review by Louise Keller:
Johnny Depp's tour de force performance as legendary Boston crime boss James 'Whitey' Bulger carries this heavy hitting gangster film, in which loyalty is everything. Based on a book by Dick Lehr and Gerard O'Neill, this screen adaptation (by Jez Butterworth and Mark Mallouk) explores the dirty deeds that give Bulger his status and the indelible bond between him, his senator brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch) and FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), who share a past as street-kids. Bulger's 'alliance' with Connolly to help nail the Italian Mafia (he insists he was not a snitch) is the hook on which the story hangs. It's a hard-hitting tale involving extortion, racketeering and murder, but it's Bulger's intimidation tactics that are the most disturbing.
The testimony of Bulger's associates is used as a springboard to recount the events beginning in the 70s when Bulger and Connolly form their alliance. We learn a lot about Bulger in those early scenes, when he tells his young son (who is reprimanded at school for hitting another student): It's not what you do, but when and where you do it. In other words, if no-one sees it, it didn't happen. This philosophy is played out over and over again, with Bulger executing 'sensitive' jobs himself with callous brutality and total detachment.
It is fascinating to witness the different sides of Bulger: the tender father and loving son; the romantic lover; the loyal friend and brother; the violent, psychopathic gangster. Depp's portrayal is by far the best thing he has done for years and his makeover with thinning slicked back hair, bad teeth and piercing cloudy blue eyes is hugely effective. His body language and posture is stiff and unbending. In short, he is terrifying.
Edgerton holds his own against Depp, his well-meaning FBI agent becoming cocky and oversure of himself as he elevates his position at work and his status with Bulger. Unsurprisingly, this trickles through to his relationship with his wife (Julianne Nicholson) which is on shaky ground. Cumberbatch uses detachment as his powerful tool, knowing when to draw the line and how.
All the support cast is excellent; look out for Juno Temple in a scene stealing sequence that begins outside a police station and ends in a deserted house. Peter Sarsgaard as a coke snorting low-life also has some memorable scenes and I like Kevin Bacon as an FBI boss.
It's the murderous intent and unremorseful planned executions that are the most disturbing and director Scott Cooper's film is uncompromising. I like the scene in which one of Bulger's cronies says 'Everybody knows...'; to which Bulger replies 'Who is everybody... We are everybody.'
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
Like the rich, sociopathic criminals are different to the rest of us, even though, like the rich, they live and move among us. But the story of Jimmy 'Whitey' Bulger is more than a story about his exploits and more than a profile of such a sociopath; it is also to some extent a profile of the FBI's weak spots: human beings. It is a story about an apparently decent man, an FBI agent - John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) - who wants to do good, but blunders. It is Shakespearean in its moral scope and instructive in its revelations about the sometimes (apparently) necessary grey areas of law enforcement. Moral selectivity is in full flight here, as things are done that are justified by the means.
There are no heroes, no goodies, in this story, no-one to look up to, except perhaps incoming prosecutor Fred Wyshak (Corey Stoll), who begins the clean up at the FBI.
Based on a book that came out of Boston Globe journalism which helped unravel Whitey's world, the story is fascinating, although I wish it were done better, or at least clearer. Hindered by muddy dialogue sound (at our preview screening), the film often fractures the story without enlightening us. The score is symphonic and grand, the design authentically period Bostonian (1970s and 80s) and costumes amusingly evocative of the era.
Scott Cooper elicits great performances from his cast, notably (a stunningly made up) Johnny Depp as the evil little bastard (now rotting in jail) who - despite his kindness to old ladies, love of his son and devotion to his mother - transgresses every boundary of human decency. At least according to this version of his persona. Joel Edgerton relishes his role as the na•ve, blustering FBI agent who strikes the deal with Whitey in which Whitey gets protection but the FBI gets very little in return. It's not this deal that finally secures Whitey's downfall. Ironic in capital letters.
The film is full of expletives, brutality and violent deaths, but quite naturally so, and this harshness is somewhat balanced by scenes of intimacy and even tenderness. It is not a 'nice' film any more than it's a 'nice' story. Like much of history, it's full of man's ugliest aspects.
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BLACK MASS (MA15+)
CAST: Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dakota Johnson, Kevin Bacon, Peter Sarsgaard, Jesse Plemons, Rory Cochrane, David Harbour, Adam Scott, Corey Stoll, Julianne Nicholson, W. Earl Brown, Bill Camp, Juno Temple
PRODUCER: Scott Cooper, John Lesher, Patrick McCormick, Brian Oliver, Tyler Thompson
DIRECTOR: Scott Cooper
SCRIPT: Mark Mallouk, Jez Butterworth (book by Dick Lehr, Gerard O'Neill)
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Masanobu Takayanagi
EDITOR: David Rosenbloom
MUSIC: Tom Holkenborg (aka Junkie XL)
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Stefania Cella
RUNNING TIME: 122 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Roadshow
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: October 8, 2015