Thursday, October 8, 2015

Black Mass (2015)

The Flea-Bitten Bulger Instigation

The old saying goes that if you lie down with dogs, you wake up with fleas. Black Mass tells the story of how misguided loyalty can make a hash of good intentions when combined with vicious ambition and the manipulations of psychopathy.

It tells the mostly true story of a "Southie" law enforcement officer, John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) in the Boston racketeering unit of the FBI. The focus of their investigation was La Cosa Nostra—the Mafia—but there was a rival Irish mob called the Winter Hill gang, that was composed of a second-generation gang of street toughs who supplanted their bosses after they were convicted of gambling and bookmaking. This group expanded into drugs and money-laundering by expanding their reach out of state, while concentrating on eliminating any rivals in the local area. They weren't that "much," until Connolly used them to break up the Italians, protecting them from prosecution or investigation, leaving the Irish to fill the void left by the Mob and increase their influence and profits.

One of them stood out—Jimmy "Whitey" Bulger (played here by Johnny Depp) had done a stretch in Atlanta Penitentiary and Alcatraz and came back to Boston with an increased ruthlessness that was indiscriminate in who it targeted. It didn't matter if you a rival or part of the gang, if you looked at Bulger funny it was a death sentence. One of the ironic things about the story is that Bulger's older brother William (played in the film by Benedict Cumberbatch) was a fixture in Boston politics, a state Senator who would become Senator Majority Leader and President of the State Senate while his brother was essentially the power behind the most ruthless organized crime mob in his district. It is through William that Connolly reaches out to Jimmy agreeing to what semantically they agree to call "an alliance"—Whitey will give them pertinent information about the Angiulo mob, while Connolly provides interference with the feds' finding out about Bulger's activities. It's not being an informant, it's not "snitching," it's doing each other turns that will be mutually beneficial and helping a fellow local advance in their respective fields. One hand washes the other. But one of them is soaked in blood.
The film is told in chronological order in the form of deposition interviews with captured members of the Winter Hill Gang, presumably in an ongoing investigation into the whereabouts of Bulger who skipped town just as he was about to be arrested by the Bureau. Although the crimes and "hits" are the most inflammatory of the incidents in the movie, it runs a parallel path of telling Bulger's story of how he increased his stranglehold on crime and the Boston area to the point where he thought he was untouchable.
Absolute power corrupts absolutely...but if you're corrupt to begin with?
So, how's the film?  Not bad, actually. It may remind one of Martin Scorsese's The Departed (a film I didn't particularly like, but it did give Scorsese his first Oscar for directing so that's significant) which was a remake of the Japanese Infernal Affairs (and actually the series of Infernal Affairs movies, which, in turn, was inspired by Scorsese's gangster films) but incorporated the Irish mob of Bulger (with Jack Nicholson's Frank Costello inspired by the erratic Bulger) as the center of the gang activities. The Departed told the story of two informants—one for the police, one for the mob—that did a deadly dance around each other, trying to keep their identities hidden. There are no such complications in Black Mass. There's the mob and the FBI and they have "an understanding" to cooperate as long as they stay out of each others' way. Bulger can reveal Connolly's "deal" at any time; Connolly can merely choose to renege on his deal and let the FBI do its job. But, for neighborhood loyalty, and a chance to advance each other's careers, the "alliance" is allowed to proceed.
Connolly's immediate boss (David Harbour) goes along with the idea, but the division head (Kevin Bacon) has several degrees of misgivings about it and wants to keep Connolly—and Bulger—on a very short leash. With Connolly's co-workers running interference, the FBI manages to take down the Angiulo mob in what is seen as a triumph, which only cements the unholy deal between Bulger and law enforcement. Even though the Angiulo ledger gets erased, Bulger's Winter Hill gang starts to rise in power, with a sharp spike in murder. Bulger's grab for power isn't subtle, and pretty soon the body count rises precipitously, with no regard to any consideration other than "you shouldn't've crossed Whitey." Only until a new broom Boston prosecutor (Corey Stoll) comes to town does the tangled web start to unravel and the truth comes out.
The strength of the film comes from the script (by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth) which manages to keep a very complicated story simple and on-the-rails and in several key performances, the most prominent of them being Johnny Depp's. For fans of Depp, it may not be an entirely enjoyable experience. The chiseled pretty boy, that always seems to be below the surface no matter how elaborate his make-up, is gone. The high cheekbones and shaved hair gives it the appearance of a skull, and every time Depp shows off his teeth, there's an elaborate dental prosthetic that completely deglamorizes Depp, something he rarely does—even his John Dillinger in Public Enemies didn't mess with his looks. 
It's a steel controlled performance, that in its quieter more threatening moments, has more than a suggestion of older, restrained Jack Nicholson to it. It's in marked contrast to most of the other actors'—chief among them Cumberbatch and Edgerton—whose performances are a bit too "brahd" due to their florid "Bahston" accents that seem to travel all over Massachusettes. But Harbour, Stoll and especially Peter Sarsgaard, manage to seal the truth of their performances without worrying about whether they sound like townies. 

There's one scene in particular that works like gangbusters in showing the creepy malevolence of the situation, especially when dealing with a manipulator like Bulger. At one point, Harbour and Edgerton's agents are having a sit-down dinner with Bulger and his lieutenant, a little meet-and-greet among collaborators. The conversation (which is the basis of the preview clip below) turns to the meal and there's a palpable malevolence to the performances that turns casual conversation into threat—a little demonstration of what the consequences might be if Bulger decides that his "good buddies" might have any doubts about their conspiracy of silence. It's in small moments like it where Black Mass rises above its cops-and-robbers roots.

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