Love That Dirty Water: Johnny Depp in BLACK MASS (Warner Brothers 2015)

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I don’t normally review new films. I usually leave that to more established bloggers, preferring to stick with my little “1930s to 1970s” niche. But I went to see BLACK MASS tonight, and feel the need to take a crack at it. I’m a Massachusetts guy, familiar with the saga of James “Whitey” Bulger. I followed the press coverage of Whitey’s criminal career through the Boston Herald’s great columnist Howie Carr, read multiple books on the subject, and have known a few “acquaintances” who claimed loose associations to some of the players. I’ve been eagerly awaiting BLACK MASS, and I was not disappointed.

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The film is told through Bulger’s Winter Hill Gang members ratting out their boss to the FBI. Everybody drops dimes on each other in BLACK MASS, proving there is no honor among thieves. We follow the career arcs of mob boss Whitey and FBI agent John Connelly, who use each other to get what they want. For Connelly, it’s getting information to take down the Mafia and move up the agency ladder. For Bulger, it’s an “alliance” to get carte blanche for his own illegal activities. But Connelly is quickly seduced by his friendship with the notorious Whitey, and becomes involved way over his head. Both men prove the old adage, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely”, as Connelly sinks deeper and deeper into the quagmire he’s created. Bulger, his Mafia rivals vanquished, becomes more bold in his crimes, believing he’s untouchable thanks to his “alliance” with Connelly.

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Johnny Depp gives a chilling performance as the psychopath Whitey Bulger, a man with no remorse for his heinous deeds. Depp plays Whitey as a stone-cold killer who plays everything close to the vest. The most frightening scene takes place in Connelly’s home, when the agent’s wife refuses to come join her husband and his new associates, claiming illness. Whitey goes to her bedroom asks about her health, touching her forehead and feeling for swollen glands, his murderous hands around her throat. It’s quietly creepy, and Depp shows barely restrained anger. You expect him to burst into violence at any time during the course of the film, but he does so only occasionally. I’m sure we’ll be hearing Depp’s name called come Oscar season, he’s that good in a role that would’ve been played over the top in a lesser actor’s hands.

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Joel Edgerton is equally effective as Connelly, whose plan to cultivate Whitey as an informer resulted in his undoing. It’s obvious Connelly admires Whitey, and his transformation from ambitious FBI agent to mobster wanna-be to disgraced felon is also worthy of Oscar buzz. We can’t leave out Benedict Cumberbatch as Whitey’s brother, State Senator Billy Bulger, who knows more about his gangster brother than he lets on. Like Whitey, politician Billy plays things close to the vest, never willing to reveal the whole truth. This was true in real life as well, as Billy was never implicated in anything involving his brother’s nefarious activities (though he did lose his job as president of UMass when it was discovered he was in contact with the fugitive Whitey). The rest of the cast shines under Scott Cooper’s superb direction, especially Kevin Bacon, Julianne Nicholson, Rory Cochrane, Dakota Johnson, and David Harbour. BLACK MASS is one of the few films I’ve seen where they actually get the Boston accents right. Kudos on that! (The only nitpick would be how everybody always finds a parking space in Boston so easily. Trust me, that NEVER fucking happens!!)

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BLACK MASS is a great gangster movie, and will not disappoint fans of the genre. The acting, the direction, the accents, even the look of 70s/80s Boston are on point. I thought it was a great film, with a terrific performance by Johnny Depp as Whitey Bulger. I highly recommend it.

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