Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Black Mass (2015) - Movie Review

Dollars to donuts, there isn’t a single actor working today who has the range of Johnny Depp. True, his work with Tim Burton may result in people forgetting this pretty damn easily, but seriously think about it: Edward Scissorhands, Jack Sparrow, Ed Wood, Raoul Duke, Guy LaPointe; even after seeing him in all these roles, I still find it difficult to believe that they’re all done by the same guy. Hell, even when he’s in absolute dreck like Mortdecai, he can still lose himself in a role. But, regardless of all of this, there’s still that Burton stigma to deal with: The pale, depressed and darkly-tinged loner, a role that has probably resulted in doing the both of them more harm than good of late. It’s with all this in mind that I look at today’s film, Depp’s latest foray into the world of American gangsters since Michael Mann’s Public Enemies, with cautious optimism. Do we get another character for the sizzle reel, or is it another stock (for Depp) performance that will have audiences reeling from their seats in droves?

The plot: Whitey Bulger (Johnny Depp) is the leader of the Irish-American mob of South Boston, treating all forms of dissent with swift vengeance. However, when an old friend from his neighbourhood FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) requires his help, he may have to tweak his own views if he wants to help them get rid of a mutual enemy. As their bond grows, John starts to sink further into Whitey’s world, bringing suspicions amongst his fellow agents about whose side he is really on.

Well, since I’ve made such a big deal already about Depp’s acting, might as well start out with our cast. Once the director’s fixation on Dick Tracy-style prosthetics starts to settle with audiences, it should be more than apparent that the acting is pretty damn good. Johnny Depp takes the film’s central idea of loyalty and Irish omertá and creates a compelling, sometimes funny and often intimidating performance as Whitey. Whether it’s staring people down one-on-one like in a surprisingly tense dinner conversation or confronting those he suspects may be unfaithful, file this one under reasons why Depp is still the most potentially versatile actor on the market. Opposite him is Edgerton and, after the masterwork that was The Gift, the man has quite a bit to live up to. Here, he gets seriously close to matching Depp with a mesmerizing and yet subtle portrayal of Connolly. Keep an eye on him throughout the film and notice how, the further he sinks into corruption, the more he starts to act like Whitey: His cocky way of walking, his facial expressions and even some of his vocal inflections; all echoed and yet without it coming across as sheer imitation.

We also get Dakota Johnson as Whitey’s wife and, in terms of playing the significant other of a clearly dangerous and unhinged man that she probably shouldn’t be around, she does better here than she has previously in the year. Beyond that, while the rest of the cast do well in their roles, the only real sticking point would be Benedict Cumberbatch as Whitey’s politician brother Billy. However, this isn’t because of Cumberbatch’s ability to carry out the role; rather, it’s because American accents have never been the actor’s strong suit and, unfortunately, his credibility in that regard hasn’t improved much since August: Osage County. Still, at least it’s being put to better use than in that bit of nagging melodrama.

In a brief moment of braggadocio, and trust me there is a point to this, I remember a conversation I had with Aussie actor Simon Westaway where he was detailing the difference between real-life gangsters and film/television gangsters. Namely, that the real world crooks are usually smart enough to not get themselves caught doing easily incriminating things; their names go into legend for a reason, and that reason usually isn’t because they ask the police for directions. This really does seem to be something that most filmmakers, save for Scorsese, forget when writing gangsters for the big screen. In this film, we get the kind of writing that highlights why this is so important to understand.

Whenever we get a scene where Whitey or one of his cohorts caps someone off, it’s staged in such a way that it should be near-impossible for someone not to see him. Yeah, I know that it’s usually the gentleman criminal’s way to pay off the witnesses, but when you’ve got a scene viewed by numerous children, logic begins to scream at the audience that there are things that money can’t buy. However, that’s small potatoes compared to the actions of Connolly within the FBI offices, which are far removed from subtle. He is almost interrogating his co-workers for information on informants, despite the fact that he is just talking with them in a hallway. He could have had a sign pointing at his head saying "Mole" and it would have been less obvious.

With how much Hollywood is digging further into the “based on actual events” dustbin, I am at least thankful that the filmmakers chose a story that has the kind of compelling double-crossing drama that makes adaptation a justifiable option. However, the final product we get here feels a little too fixated on the bare details and not enough on how to convey said details on camera. It doesn’t work so well because, even with my own admitted unfamiliarity with the story, it still feels like details are missing and not delving into nearly enough to generate sufficient drama. This isn’t helped by the fact that the only dramatic device this script seems to have at its disposal is its infatuation with the idea of loyalty, something that is about as ground-breaking within the realm of crime cinema as fedoras and Tommy guns.

Not to say that there aren’t any good ideas here, as the film has a promising framing device involving associates of Whitey’s being interviewed by the FBI about the events of the film. There are an awful lot of possibilities that could be taken advantage of here, not the least of which being an opportunity to use this to isolate certain aspects of Whitey’s personality and paint a distinct picture of the man. This could’ve been like a gangster version of Citizen Kane and, no, for once this isn’t a film snob being too expectant when making that comparison. Instead, all it really does is create the classic plot hole where people recount events that the viewpoint character in no way could know about in as much detail as they do. There’s also how clunky the pacing is, both in terms of Whitey’s character progression and the film as a whole. Rather than show either of these naturally and gradually, the film instead uses what are essentially road markers to track their progress: Awkward title cards announcing the year that the following scene takes place in and family-related deaths for the latter, neither of which end up working in the film’s favour.

All in all, despite how overly negative this review has come across as, this is by no means a bad film and that is a testament to just how great the acting is, particularly Depp’s intensity and Edgerton’s contrasting subtlety that seems to defy how blunt his writing can get. The writing is more than a little shaky and is mired in a lot of missed opportunities, but this is where the duality of great casting and acting can end up saving the overall product, even if I still wish it acted on more of its potential than it ultimately did. For fans of Johnny Depp when he gets a chance to commit to a character, or just so that you can see how good a year Edgerton has been having, I give this a decent recommendation.

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