Saturday, October 17, 2015

Black Mass (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Black Mass

American cinema has a rich history of gangster films. Francis Ford Coppola made his mark with "The Godfather" trilogy. Then there was Martin Scorsese with "Casino" and "Goodfellas". De Palma also has made his stylistic contribution with "Scarface," an epic tale of a thug who reaches the top by brute force and intimidation alone.

 In this tradition is director Scott Cooper's "Black Mass," a kind of character study of James "Whitey" Bulger, the lethal gangster from South Boston.

The film is told in flashback from numerous Bulger henchmen.

The first sight of the head gangleader is quite scary. Bulger holds court at Triple O's Lounge. As played by Johnny Depp, he is silver eyed and dead-skinned with a pallor of alien green. One cold fish. Nothing gets past him and diplomacy is not his strong point.

Through the course of the story, Bulger seethes with intermittent rage. FBI agent  John Connelly (Joel Edgerton) who knows Bulger since childhood, asks him to be an informant and help bag the Angiulo Brothers.  Because of this, in addition to local bonds, Bulger is nearly immune from prosecution, although he sadistically murders with impunity.

The film does well in showing how a seedy menace is woven within the soil of day to day life. From legislation, the FBI, Sunday Mass, the St Patrick's Day parade and the family dinner, Bulger is insulated and encapsulated in a green quilt known as South Boston. Bulger is further safeguarded by his brother William (Benedict Cumberbatch ) a Massachusetts State Senate President.

One scene in particular is quite unsettling. During a party, Connolly's disgusted wife (Julianne Nicholson) retires to bed, reading The Exorcist. The door is opened by Jimmy himself. His eyes are demonic and cold. His face contorts in menace very much like little Regan. This is no accident. The cinematography too, with stark diagonal lines and its deeply saturated townhouses streaked in black, recalls the Halloween classic.

The church is hinted upon but never fully explored. When Bulger attends his mother's funeral it is a bland affair with the gangster peering like a vulture upon the mortal preceedings. A crucifix and stained glass is shown later and the two images are anemic and colorless. The singular act of human care that this villain demonstrates is in the care of his sick son. Once the child is completely immersed in illness, the demon portion of Jimmy assumes  full control.

Suggested too, is the compelling concept that Bulger is his brother's toxic twin perhaps, always in the background seeking favors, advice or news. These too suggestions, though never explicity stated are all the more intriguing

Eerily, he often kills in the bright of day, without warning juxtaposed with cheerful Miami Beach colors. Take special caution if Bulger says that you are good with him. He often strikes quickly to the sound of screaming children, putting all in panic. In this way the film is most like "Jaws." A summer day can easily bring blood.

Though at times Depp feels a bit kitschy in this role, given that he wears a pair of orange sunglasses ala Hunter Thompson together with his Pazazu glare, he is clearly having more fun here than Linda Blair ever did. Depp's portrayal is quite visceral almost like a cinema vampire of old, but thankfully, he falls short of chewing any scenery.

Though the trappings are more than familiar, "Black Mass" is a fitting addition to the genre with its appropriate gloom and another unrestrained performance by Johnny Depp who captures the chill of this man with the intimacy of an evil twin.

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