Black Mass seems distinguished by the absence of good guys. Johnny Depp’s performance as the mobster Whitey Bulger, is applauded, as is that of Joel Edgerton who plays Connolly, the other ‘mobster’ of the FBI. The film is based on a true story but real life seemed faster paced and more colourful than the movie. This is probably why Fortune’s in-house film critic, Christian Tesfaye, could award Black Mass no more than six out of 10 stars.  

Money is a poor substitute for morality. Everyone knows this, but does everyone heed it? I am not talking about only pimps, drug lords or dictators but those of us that turn a blind eye to the world’s ills, or scheme, lie and denounce our fellowman to get ahead in life. And it all starts in the family with the people that bear us. In high school, our parents advise us to study hard and in college, they tell us to get good grades. But in real life, where it matters, when we start work and join a world of bureaucracy and petty politics, they rarely tell us to work hard, to be honest or earn our due, but to be “smart.”

Tony Soprano of The Sopranos or Henry Hill of Goodfellas, were not gifted musicians or perceptive scientists. They were not what we would call book smart or good at Math. They had no talents or any characteristic that would be deemed respectable, or legal. And they sure were not patient enough to hold a low paid job or work their way through a white-collar office hierarchy. So, they got smart. They did the only thing that requires no hard work or any unique skill and that was to be a thug. They had the talent to stomach, not just the socially acceptable misdemeanours we average people commit on a daily basis, but physical violence, and were able to justify it.

It is obvious where I am going with this, in introducing the crime film, Johnny Depp’s Black Mass. I was surprised to see the film at Edna Mall as it has already entered and exited the US box office, but I guess that is the idea with films of such standing. Despite the Depp novelty, Black Mass is not marketed in the usual summer box office manner. It is a drama based on a true story, which means it is a serious movie and God willing, award worthy. With its limited marketing, the film does not stretch beyond the western hemisphere. Countries like Ethiopia hear about the film on the US box office, on social media or simply from word of mouth, and when it comes to our theatres, we say: “Hey, I’ve heard about this film, let’s go and see it.”

The movie is about a notorious Boston mobster called Whitey Bulger who, after almost a decade in the can, comes to his home town and becomes, at first, a crook. But the film is also about a childhood friend of his – John Connolly, who, like Bulger, returns to his neighbourhood as an FBI agent investigating gangs in the area. Bulger is street smart and when Connolly asks him to become an informer, unlike most other criminal bosses, and despite his detest for snitches, he accepts.

He does not rat on his friends or his “business” associates but on his competition; which, to be fair, is just not cool, not even for a Mafioso. His competition is Italian Mob bosses, and when they go down, it is because of Bulger’s information to the FBI. As a result of this, his handler, Connolly, gets a raise and a promotion – everybody wins. But not for long; Bulger is using the FBI, through his childhood friend, for his own ends. He grows too powerful to be ignored by the agency and too resourceful to be captured, either.

The nickname “Whitey” is an allusion to Bulger’s blond hair. And as he grew older, his skin became somewhat whiter (bordering on albino) and his face became uglier and unhealthily creepy. He looks like the kind of person I would always pick on a Police lineup, just on general principles. In the film, he is played by Depp under heavy makeup and the actor could not be more comfortable. From Edward Scissorhands to Captain Jack Sparrow, Depp has made his name playing people who looked too ridiculous to exist in real life. Bulger is an exception.

Another impressive performance comes from Joel Edgerton who plays Connolly as the shameless, leeching, real life character he is. If the effectiveness in Depp’s performance lies in its exaggeration, Edgerton’s is in its level-headedness. As a result of this, Connolly’s storyline is sometimes – unintentionally, I am sure – more interesting than that of Bulger’s.

Black Mass is the kind of movie that is considered an actor’s picture. The show-off is not the writer or the director but the actors, from whose performances the film draws its source of power. So, it is a real bummer when there is a weak chain; this time in the form of Benedict Cumberbatch – which is shocking because I consider him to be the next Dustin Hoffman. He has the kind of face we might see on the street and assume that a weird face like that would never make it in Hollywood, but does and the reason is raw talent. But in Black Mass, he simply does not have anything to offer. And his accent for the film’s Boston bred character was too thick, it made him seem like he had a lisp or was imitating Cary Grant.

“Black Mass” is a term given to an ancient rite (that is probably still going on today), that perverted the traditional Roman Catholic ritual that is known simply as Mass. When it comes to the term’s relevance to the film, we could take a similar approach and assume it is because of Bulger’s desecration and belittling of an institution like the FBI; which was created to serve and protect. It could also allude to the fact that both Italian and Irish mobs pride themselves in being of these ancestries but end up giving a bad name to their communities. Either way, these are not themes the film builds upon.

After watching the film, I tried skimming Bulger’s life history on Wikipedia but actually ended up reading the whole thing. The guy led a pretty interesting life: he scammed both the FBI and the city police, became the moist notorious mobster of his time and place, made millions, evaded authorities for 12 years and was actually FBI’s most wanted fugitive only second to, get this… Osama Bin Laden. Black Mass on the other hand is slow-paced and even boring at times, most likely, because it draws less from Bulger’s colourful story and more from popular gangster films. This barely makes the movie worth the price of admission.

By Christian Tesfaye
Fortune’s in-house film critic

Published on Nov 02,2015 [ Vol 16 ,No 809]



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