Director Scott Cooper Screenwriters Mark Mallouk, Jez Butterworth Starring Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Rory Cochrane, Jesse Plemons Country OF Origin USA 2015 Running Time 124 mins UK Distribution Warner Bros. Pictures
Virgin Atlantic GALA
We all loved Martin Scorsese’s THE DEPARTED. It was a faultlessly written dramatisation of gangsters and cops in ‘Southie’ (South Boston), with unforgettable performances from Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Martin Sheen and Alec Baldwin that all individually shine in their own right. For those who lust over Scorsese’s filmography – and there are many of us – his 2006 film felt not just like the next instalment in a seamless repertoire but the epitome of all his best strengths and themes, finally earning him the Oscar he deserved.
BLACK MASS unfortunately cannot hold a candle to Scorsese’s classic, try as it might, and for all its big names and careful production finish comes across as nothing more than an inauthentic spin off that’s half an hour too long.
Scott Cooper’s biopic of Jimmy ‘Whitey’ Bulger, set in the notorious 70s Boston underworld, seeks to show the inextricable link between cops and criminals and the “business transactions” they made to help each other ascend to the highest positions of power. Joel Edgerton plays John Connolly: FBI agent who saw small-time gangster and childhood friend Jimmy as an opportunity to further his career by convincing him to enrol as an informant, in turn agreeing to help Jimmy move up to the big leagues of organised crime by taking out their shared enemy, the Italian mob. A confused concoction of loyalty, fear, suspicion and faith in old ties binds Connolly to a situation he didn’t foresee the consequences of, and before long their relationship has given birth to an entirely new and brutal age of gangsterism.
Despite the promises of the trailer, which featured the only good bit of writing in the movie – a tense dinner table conversation where Jimmy uses the analogy of giving away a secret family recipe to warn off disloyalty – upon reflection more could have been deduced from the core casting decisions such as Johnny can’t-pick-a-good-film Depp as the lead and, of all people, Benedict Cumberbatch as his brother the State Senate (the third point in the power triangle) who must be beating off film offers from every Hollywood studio with a wooden stick to find himself in this one. But a Boston gangster film? Cumberbatch took to the role as any thespian should – by studying Family Guy’s Peter Griffin and coupling his voice with James Caan’s hand movements. One comical, meta moment of enjoyment comes when Cumberbatch, arguably most famous for his role as Sherlock Holmes, mentions a murder on “Baker Street”. Big bravo to whoever slipped that in.
Being Girls on Film, we were particularly impressed with all the female characters in the film, who played the part of quivering props. Dakota Johnson as Bulger’s girlfriend Lindsey did wonders with her 5 minutes of screen time, and by that I of course mean she was an entirely weak character with only a handful of well executed ‘yes’ and ‘no’s’ to deliver. She did have lovely hair though (v. important). John Connolly’s wife had such a significant impact on me that I could not remember her character’s name until I just googled it right now (it’s Marianne). Much like Lindsey, she too seemed to have a limited vocabulary leading up to the point that she was threatened and strangled. Nice!
Juno Temple, GOF girl crush, played (albeit, like everything she does, with believability) an infuriatingly stupid junkie prostitute who, whilst wearing a pair of barely-there hot pants, had a thrilling three minutes on screen in which she was patronised, objectified and then also strangled ❤
However, Sienna Miller’s character has to be my absolute favourite. She played Jimmy’s long term girlfriend Catherine Greig, who was captured at the same time as Bulger finally was in 2011 for harbouring a fugitive amongst other things. She was the key female counterpart in his pre-prison lifetime aside from his mother and with him throughout the time that the film takes place….informing….lots of his choices? No. Apparently her role was so insignificant it was cut from the film entirely.
This film disappointingly boils down to many close-up shots of Depp’s carefully aged face and ominous overlaying musical tones that cannot hide the fact that there is no story to follow. So if you want to see a film about overweight white male Boston gangsters (and fancy seeing what Depp looks like as an old man) then I cannot recommend this film highly enough.
The Final Word: Even those in it for the gangster joy-ride will be yawning by mid second act.
BLACK MASS had its BFI London Film Festival on Sunday 11th.