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Black Mass starring Johnny Depp & Joel Edgerton; My take on the movie

We got a screener in the mail earlier this week so I finally got a chance to watch Black Mass. The cast, the entire cast, top to bottom, did a remarkable job telling this awful and true story. Maybe it was the comfy chair, maybe it was the glass of wine, but I fell asleep sometime during the last half hour of the film. I fast forwarded my way through the movie again last night, finding my place and was again struck with the gritty realism of the performances. It could be that the 2 hours and 2 minutes running time is just a little bit long. It could be it’s just a little bit too long for me.
My son suggested I pay attention to the cinematography by Masanobu Takayanagi–Takayanagi also shot Spotlight currently in theaters—who imbued the movie with a distinctly 70’s haze, a seaminess that added to the authentic feel of the film. Since the film was based on fact, not fiction — the book Black Mass: Whitey Bulger, the FBI, and a Devil's Deal by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill informed the script—it was especially important that the awful ring of truth was clear throughout. There’s no big shootout of an ending, just the slow, inexorable crawl of life and ultimately, a karmic satisfaction. The bad guys do get their day in court, it’s just sometimes, in real life, you have to wait an awful long time for justice.

Johnny Depp was brilliant as Whitey Bulgar, the inherently cruel crime boss. The warmth in Depps brown eyes eradicated by light blue contact lenses, the viciousness visible in the set of Depp’s jaw, the arrogance alive in the swagger of his walk. You’ve got to give it Bulgar, he did most of his dirty work himself, taking pleasure in dishing out the punishment, strangling, choking, stabbing, viciously kicking, while his crew looked on and then cleaned up the mess. As bad as Bulgar is—and boy is he bad—it’s very good to have Johnny Depp back, doing real, solid, memorable work.

Far from being a cartoonish stereotype of evil, Depp’s Bulgar is also seen as a loving, if misguided, father, and even a boy scout of a citizen when he runs across a little old lady from the neighborhood, ordering his crew to help put her groceries away. It’s a scene that director Scott Cooper uses as shorthand to show not just that Bulgar can be a nice guy, but that in spite of being a criminal, he’s achieved a celebrity status in his neighborhood, beloved for keeping the mafia at bay.    

It’s Bulgar’s desire to keep the mafia from encroaching on his turf that has him accepting the offer from his childhood friend, FBI agent, John Connelly to turn informant. Joel Edgerton is equally compelling as Connelly, sleazy, dishonest, swayed by the glitz his association with Bulgar provides. 

His wife (Julianne Nicholson) who clearly feels dirtied by the relationship accuses him of changing. The way he walks, the way he carries himself. Getting manicures. Connelly is becoming more and more like Bulgar, she says. Her disgust mirrors our own distaste, her disappointment in her husband the FBI agent not unlike the disappointment Bulgars associates feel in Bulgar, the crime boss. They’ve seen him at his worse, bad behavior he hasnt hesitated to show to them too. 

It’s a fascinating look at an old friendship between two men who should be on opposite sides of the good/evil debate. But what was that your mother told you when you were growing up? Show me your friends, and I’ll show you who you are. Show me your friends and I’ll show your future.

Here’s the trailer and a behind the scenes featurette. Directed by Scott Cooper, Black Mass stars Johnny Depp and Joel Edgarton with an amazing cast of supporting players including Julianne Nicholson, Benedict Cumberbatch, David Harbour, Dakota Johnson, Kevin Bacon, Peter Saargard, Adam Scott, and Corey Stoll with special shout outs to Bulgar’s crew: Jesse Plemons (Friday Night Lights) Rory Cochrane (Argo) and W. Earl Brown (True Dectective, season 2). 

Black Mass is still playing in my Los Angeles neighborhood, if it’s still playing in yours too, catch it when you can. Just don’t drink the wine.