THE BLU REVIEW: Black Mass (2015)

Johnny Depp leads the way in last year’s overlooked true life crime drama. Cal gives it another look on disc. 

More than anything else, Black Mass is an actor’s showcase; a golden opportunity for actors to show off their talents by embodying historical characters. It’s the latest cinematic endeavour for director Scott Cooper, whose previous movies (Crazy Heart, Out of the Furnace) are also more notable for their acting than storytelling. Black Mass is bolstered by magnificent performances and a solid technical presentation, yet its two-hour running time merely amounts to a number of effective set-pieces, with Cooper unable to bring it all together in an overly substantive fashion. Still, it’s difficult to entirely write off this competent gangster thriller, which certainly has its strong points.

In the 1970s, ruthless criminal James “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp) is poised to take over an Irish mob crew known as the Winter Hill Gang in his homeland of South Boston, standing in stark contrast to his brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch), a U.S. senator. On the other side of the law is Bulger’s childhood pal John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), an FBI agent torn between his friendship with the volatile mobster and his professional responsibilities. To gain immunity from criminal activities, Bulger agrees to work as an FBI informant, which he uses to his advantage, gaining unprecedented power as he feeds the Feds minimal information while Connolly protects his interests from within the bureau. But Bulger’s misdeeds continue to pile up, and Connolly’s superiors at the FBI begin to dig deeper.

Written by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth, the movie is predominantly based on Dick Lehr and ‘s 2001 novel Black Mass: The True Story of an Unholy Alliance Between the FBI and the Irish Mob, staying true enough to the real-life events while taking a certain degree of dramatic license when it comes to certain characters. Parts of the film are framed through the eyes of Jimmy’s associates – including Kevin Weeks (Jesse Plemons) – who talk to the FBI about their involvement in the gang and knowledge of Bulger’s countless crimes. It’s an interesting way to justify the narrative, which does boil down to a “greatest hits” compilation of Bulger’s most active years. There is only so much that can be done within the confines of a two-hour motion picture, thus Black Mass provides more of a sprawling snapshot as opposed to an intimate character study. Indeed, Cooper’s film does come together well enough on its own merits as a dramatisation, but the subject matter would be better served as a TV miniseries, as it seems like portions of the movie are missing, with the large ensemble of supporting characters flopping in and out without making much of an impact.

For maximum authenticity, Black Mass was predominantly lensed on location in South Boston, and many of the historically accurate scenes were shot in the very spot where they actually took place (including the infamous Bulger burial site). Cooper aims for a filmic aesthetic reminiscent of motion pictures from the 1970s, with a deliberate, desaturated colour palette and gloriously old-fashioned cinematography, relying on steady long shots rather than shaky-cam or quick-cutting. Shot on 35mm film stock, Black Mass carries a gorgeous texture, and the rest of the production values are spot-on, recreating Boston from the 70s and 80s with ease. The period-specific detail is superb, with nothing seeming phoney, and there’s a sense of authority that pervades most every frame, enhanced by Junkie XL’s moody, effective original score. Cooper’s storytelling may need improvement, but there’s little to complain about from a technical standpoint.

Without a doubt, Black Mass belongs to Depp, who turns in some of his greatest work to date as the fearsome Bulger, disappearing into the role with laudable abandon. Brutal and scary, this is not simply more quirkiness from Depp – it’s a completely unflattering character for the heartthrob to play, and he’s covered in convincing make-up to hide his natural good looks. Cooper wisely lets Depp command the frame, allowing his extraordinary work to speak for itself without any unnecessary cinematic flourish. Even though Depp missed out on major awards (he still hasn’t won an Oscar), this is arguably one of the best performances of 2015. Equally solid is Aussie actor Edgerton, who demonstrates yet again why he’s a talent to watch. Black Mass spends a fair chunk of time concentrating on Bulger and Connolly’s relationship, showing how each of their lives are affected by their arrangement. But there are a lot of other characters in this story, all of whom are played by recognisable performers, including Kevin Bacon, Dakota Johnson, Peter Sarsgaard, Adam Scott, David Harbour, Juno Temple, Corey Stoll and Julianna Nicholson. Of particular note is the always-reliable Cumberbatch, who’s nicely understated as Bulger’s brother, while Plemons also makes a positive impression playing Kevin Weeks. It’s a shame that there isn’t more breathing room for a cast of this calibre, however.

Black Mass does fall short of being the instant gangster classic that it had the potential to be, and one must wonder if an extended cut might be able to improve the limited scope of the narrative. Nevertheless, this is a noble attempt to dramatise Bulger’s rise and fall, showing enough of the man’s ghastly criminal acts to paint a sobering portrait of one of America’s most notorious gangsters. Flaws and all, Black Mass is worth watching, if only for Depp’s exceptional performance.

The Blu-ray

Slightly altered from its theatrical aspect ratio of 2.39:1, Warner Bros. presents this gangster thriller in 1080p high definition framed at 2.40:1. In a word, it looks utterly gorgeous, one of the best new release titles in recent memory. Cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi shot the picture on 35mm film stock with Arriflex cameras, and it looks reminiscent of movies from the 1970s by design, with a desaturated colour palette and noticeable grain. Detail and sharpness stick out the most at first glance. In close-ups, detail is staggering, which permits us to marvel at the wonderfully authentic make-up effects and the accurate period-specific clothing. Even in medium or long shots, the transfer never falters, retaining a refined cinematic texture and always exhibiting plenty of detail. In addition, there is a thin but noticeable layer of film grain, which serves to augment the detail. The grain is always refined rather than blocky, and makes for a beautifully-textured image. It’s free of digital artefacts as well, making this borderline demo material.

On the audio front, Warner supplies a very robust DTS-HD MA 5.1 soundtrack. Dialogue is clean and well-prioritised, while gunshots and punches pack plenty of impact. There’s nice surround activity to enhance the atmospherics of various scenes, as well. There’s very little to complain about.

In terms of supplements, the most substantial inclusion is a sprawling hourlong documentary concerning the real-life manhunt for Whitey Bulger. It traces Bulger’s movements during the time that he was a fugitive, and many of the real people involved in his capture are on hand to talk about how Bulger was caught. This is an excellent inclusion to the disc and a terrific companion piece to the movie. Also on the disc is a 23-minute behind-the-scenes look at the production that’s relatively interesting on the whole, and there’s a 12-minute piece entitled “Johnny Depp: Becoming Whitey Bulger” which is all about the actor’s preparation for the role. It’s a very good package on the whole, but a commentary would’ve been the icing on the cake.

Bottom line? Black Mass is straightforward and its never overly inspired, but it does work well enough thanks to competent technical specs and wonderful acting. Just don’t expect Scarface. I would be very interested in an extended cut, though, if there is any deleted material floating around. The disc is very good, making this a recommended buy if you enjoyed the movie.

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