Fall is upon us, and that means great news for movie fans everywhere"”its Oscar season, baby. One of the most successful genres to garner attention at the Academy Awards is mafia films. The bar was set with, you guessed it, The Godfather. It was so successful that it spawned a generation of gangster films, and to this day they are still a big ticket at the box office. It appears that the spirit of Marlon Brando passed the baton to another character actor 40 years later in Scott Cooper's Black Mass. I'm of course referring to the incomparable Johnny Depp as James "Whitey" Bulger and, boy does he get things started in a big way.
Depp gives what is arguably one of his best performances and is sure to propel him into the Academy Award conversation as he personifies Whitey Bulger, one of the most notorious criminals in American history. For that, naturally-- the film's pulse is Depp, as he weaves in and out of scenes like a snake in the night, controlling the screen with his conniving behavior.
The film chronicles Bulger's rise to prominence with the formation of the Winter Hill Gang and Bulger's relationship as an informant thanks to a former childhood friend turned FBI agent, John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), who is a good cop that gets seduced by the sadistic ways of Bulger. Benedict Cumberbatch is Bulger's older brother Billy, a very subdued politician. Other actors of note include Kevin Bacon as the head of the FBI Charles McGuire and Rory Cochrane as Steve Flemmi, one of Bulger's trusted confidants.
Black Mass is a well crafted film that has a great tone. However, I do have a few caveats that include the setting and Cooper's overall direction. Yes, you can see the influences of Coppola and Scorsese with some really powerful exchanges throughout the film. One of the highlights is the opening sequence of the film where Whitey makes a mockery out of one of his "fat-fingered" henchman with his thoughtless eating habits. Even with a few sprinkled bits of perfection, the script is still hanging on by a thread. It has great set up scenes with no real character arc. Instead, the film is rather flashy and static. The two hour runtime left a lot of gaps in the storyline and left out extensive detail--- in its place more style and shock value. For this reason the film fell short of being great. Cumberbatch really has no purpose in this film, and he is a terrific actor. I was a bit puzzled as to why he would accept such a mediocre role.
One important and shocking bit of news is the omission of talented actress Sienna Miller, who portrayed Whitey's longtime girlfriend Catherine Grieg. What's more impressive is the way the editors erased her from the final cut. With that being said, the film would have been better served as a mini-series on HBO or, if possible, a two part movie a la Tarantino's Kill Bill that way there is ample time to paint a detailed picture of Bulger's rise to prominence and all of the people that helped him get there.
This film could have used the Scorsese treatment, the master of epic mob films. He is the legend of character development. Nothing against Scott Cooper of course. He did a superb job with the time allotted to making this film. He is definitely on the rise, and Black Mass has more depth than his previous effort in Out Of the Furnace. I'd be interested to see a director's cut if they decide to release one. Overall, the film was carried by some really powerful performances and delivered enough thrills that I recommend seeing it in theatres.