For over a decade the surpassingly talented Johnny Depp has splashed about in the cine-shallows, repeatedly playing a dissolute pirate in between tossing off self-consciously “quirky” roles such as The Mad Hatter (Alice In Wonderland) and the Big Bad Wolf (the Sondheim musical Into the Woods). And now, all of a sudden there is Oscar buzz because of his astonishing portrayal of notorious Boston gangster James “Whitey” Bulger in Black Mass. Just a vicious small-time hood from working class “Southie” (South Boston), Bulger was groomed as an informant by the FBI in the 1970s, with the hope he would help them bring down Boston’s powerful Italian Mob. But Bulger played the FBI for fools – especially his handler, John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), a childhood friend who also grew up on those mean streets. Eventually, thanks to FBI protection, the ambitious Bulger was able to morph into one of Boston’s most murderous criminals – with his own well-stocked graveyard hidden in an industrial zone.
Little-known director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart) creates an unnervingly bleak tone for this true-life gangster epic, eschewing the romanticism of the Godfather films for a grimy realism that yokes together the cynicism of FBI bureaucrats with their slimy criminal counterparts who pride themselves for “living by a code” while behaving like animals. Loyalty is a key theme, and it motivates Bulger as much as Connolly – two very different men whose personalities were forged in the same rough milieu.
The storyline unfolds chronologically, via flashbacks, as the FBI interrogates several members of Bulger’s gang after they’ve finally been arrested (and Bulger is on the lam). We see the small-time hood become a full-blown psychopath – and the fact that he loved his little boy and his mother is little more than a repulsive irony. By the time this deranged reptile is gunning down his enemies in broad daylight and strangling people who have betrayed him, it’s terrifying. And Depp, unrecognizable under heavy makeup and prosthetics and bad teeth, is a cold-eyed horror in a performance you won’t soon forget.
Edgerton has as much screen time as Depp, and holds his own as a vain, increasingly deluded man convinced that covering up Bulger’s crimes is a fair trade off for the FBI. Add in strong supporting performances from such talented actors as Benedict Cumberbatch, Kevin Bacon, and Peter Sarsgaard and Mass is horrifyingly watchable.
Stars Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton
Directed by Scott Cooper
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Beasts of No Nation
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As we head into fall, how about a great-value Rhone wine to complement that duck confit or cassoulet? Le Clairon des Anges is a classic blend of Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvédre, and is touched with the herby terroir that is one of the signature joys of Rhone reds. This beauty is a young wine that needs to breathe – but at $15, who can complain?