Black Mass

September 26, 2015 at 5:06 pm | Posted in 2015 | Leave a comment
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◊ ◊ ◊ ½

I must confess that I have confusion over the term “character actor,” which, in theory, seems to refer to someone who is mostly known for playing a character type. Yet, in practice, it appears to refer to actors who are never in lead roles. I find that strange because, to me, nobody is a better character actor than Johnny Depp. He has rarely ever just played the average guy; he is always playing some larger than life character and, whether it works (“Edward Scissorhands,” “Ed Wood,” “Pirates of the Caribbean”) or doesn’t (“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” “Dark Shadows,” “The Lone Ranger”), it’s fascinating to watch. This time is works brilliants. Depp’s James “Whitey” Bulger is by far his most disturbing character to date. He imbues Bulger with such seething malice for everyone that tension flows through every single scene. The way he stares, smiles, holds his shoulders, walks, all make him look like a thing of incredible danger. I have no idea what the real Bulger is like (and he has taken issue with this portrayal) but this character is a great movie villain and probably the best I have seen in years. There is one scene between him and Agent Connolly’s wife (Julianne Nicholson) that is brilliant. She claims to be sick and he checks her vitals in the most menacing way; it’s a moment of nurturing turned into horrifying threat. That scene will stay with me a long time. The larger film itself is not quite as transformative. Corrupt cops in bed with gangsters is hardly new material and, in fact, we have seen variations of this film several times in the last few years. The Boston accents are fun and the story is gripping but it wasn’t exceptional. Also, be warned, it was extremely violent. And not cartoon, superhero, action violence. This was up close and graphically real violence. It was disturbing enough that I turned away a couple of times. Depp was not the only good actor here. Joel Edgerton (“Animal Kingdon,” “The Great Gatsby,” “Zero Dark Thirty”) is a powerful Australian actor, known mostly for background roles here in the US. Hopefully, this film will give him a boost. As the deeply corrupt John Connolly, Edgerton is the other central character to what is essentially a relationship movie. Who these men are to each other and how they are using/being used by each is the central story arc of the film. It works because both actors are up to the task. Nicholson is also incredibly strong as Connolly’s wife. A whole bevy of other big actors show up in roles of varying importance. I had a hard time seeing Benedict Cumberbatch as Bulger’s brother but this is a minor quibble. This biggest flaw, as I have said, is in telling a story that wasn’t so unique and, perhaps, in having no heroes to root for. This is a story of bad men doing worse things. Everyone with any screen time is so unlikeable and so bathed in violence that it can leave the audience a bit numb by the end. This is not a film that will garner any Oscars, nor should it. But it might give Edgerton’s career a much deserved push and jump start Depp’s. That would not be a bad thing.

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