Friday, September 18, 2015

Black Mass: Nightmarish deal with the devil

Black Mass (2015) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated R, for brutal violence, profanity, sexual candor and drug use

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 9.18.15

Lie down with dogs, get up with fleas.

The saga of gangster James “Whitey” Bulger was far from complete when Boston Globe reporters Gerard O’Neill and Dick Lehr — the former a Pulitzer winner, the latter a Pulitzer finalist — published their true-crime saga Black Mass in 2000. With his criminal empire having been crushed during the previous decade; Whitey already was six years a fugitive.

It may seem like a quiet meal, but the atmosphere is far from benign ... particularly when
mob enforcer Stephen Flemmi (Rory Cochrane, far left) decides that FBI agent John Morris
(David Harbour, far right) has insulted him. Suddenly, even Whitey Bulger (Johnny Depp,
center left) and fellow FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) are sure what'll happen...
He remained on the run until June 22, 2011, when he was arrested quietly in Santa Monica, Calif. Two courtroom trials later, jaw-dropping for their sordid detail, Whitey — then 83 years old — was sentenced to two consecutive life terms (plus five years, for good measure). He’s now a permanent resident at a Florida federal penitentiary.

Whitey’s vicious career, and the scandalous FBI incompetence that allowed it to flourish, have been brought to the big screen by director Scott Cooper, whose two previous films — Crazy Heart and Out of the Furnace — demonstrated an impressive flair for character drama. Cooper doesn’t disappoint here either; armed with a taut and densely layered script adaptation by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth, the director delivers a horrific portrait of unrestrained evil and corruption.

The film is anchored further by star Johnny Depp’s chilling depiction of Whitey: as far from the comic antics of Capt. Jack Sparrow as could possibly be imagined.

Depp obviously has an affinity for true crime, having previously played John Dillinger in director Michael Mann’s slick and sordid Public Enemies. Awful as Depp’s Dillinger was, though, a bit of the actor’s charm occasionally leaked around the edges, Mann and co-scripters Ronan Bennett and Ann Biderman perhaps trying to suggest a soupçon of “honor among thieves” camaraderie.

You won’t find any such quasi-ethical respite here; Depp’s Whitey is the stuff of nightmares, his tightly compressed lips and stone-cold stare as unnerving as his flat, detached manner of speaking. The only thing worse than Whitey’s reluctance to smile, is an occasion that does prompt a death’s-head grin: a certain signal of looming brutality.

Folks will talk about this performance for quite some time.

Cooper, Mallouk and Butterworth structure their film as an extended flashback, with events chronicled by various members of Whitey’s entourage, following their capture and eventual incarceration (several of them much too briefly, as we eventually learn during the end-credit text blocks).

The narrative begins in the 1970s with ambitious FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) whose return to his South Boston roots enables him to re-connect with Whitey, a fellow “Southie” from way back. Connolly’s law-and-order façade notwithstanding, he’s still enamored of the powerful Whitey, once a childhood buddy.

Connolly’s wife, Marianne (Julianne Nicholson), doesn’t understand this bond; she’ll soon grow to fear it. Connolly’s go-to response, when such arguments escalate over time, merely invokes the word “loyalty.”

Edgerton’s depiction of Connolly’s character arc is subtle and quite intriguing. We can’t help wondering, at least initially, if the man is naïve enough to believe that Whitey isn’t playing him. Eventually, though, it becomes impossible to regard Connolly as anything but an opportunistic crook hiding behind his FBI shield.

Which, in a sense, makes Connolly worse than his childhood pal. Whitey is an unapologetic monster; he makes no excuses about his behavior. Connolly, on the other hand, pretends to operate “for the greater good” ... and, astonishingly, he successfully sells that notion to his FBI colleagues.

Connolly gains permission to make Whitey a secret informant, a bargain the latter embraces as a means to eliminate their common enemy: the Italian mob, and particularly Mafia boss Gennaro Angiulo. Whitey shares this new status with top lieutenant Stephen Flemmi (Rory Cochrane), who agrees to be “handled” by Connolly’s fellow agent, John Morris (David Harbour).

When Connolly outlines this scheme to agent-in-charge Charles McGuire (Kevin Bacon, deliciously sarcastic) and colleague Robert Fitzpatrick (Adam Scott), the response is predictably contemptuous (and thank God for some common sense!). But Connolly wins the argument, and thus is born the unholiest of alliances ... because, as the gleeful Whitey explains to Flemmi, now they can get away with anything.

To be sure, McGuire has issued strict edicts forbidding Whitey to get involved in drugs, murder and various other illegal acts ... which is about as useful as commanding a scorpion not to sting its enemies. Besides, with Connolly as a complicit chaperone — the degree of the his “useful involvement” remains vague for a time — Whitey has absolutely nothing to worry about.

And — oh, yes — it should be mentioned that Whitey’s younger brother is career politician William Michael “Billy” Bulger (Benedict Cumberbatch), president of the Massachusetts State Senate, a post he held from 1978 through ’96. Nobody yet knows the degree to which Billy might have clandestinely helped Whitey, or whether (unlikely as it seems) the former maintained a calculated distance; not even O’Neill and Lehr could penetrate that brotherly bond, and of course the journalists had to tread carefully, lest they trigger a libel suit.

At the very least, though, the Bulger sibling association carries a strong taint of nasty complicity ... a sense that Cooper, Depp and Cumberbatch suggest with several unsettling scenes between Whitey and Billy. Cumberbatch gets another great opportunity to exploit a strong American accent, in this case South Boston — recall his turn as Little Charles Aiken, in the Oklahoma-based August: Osage County — which makes his performance here even juicier.

We get the distinct impression that Cumberbatch’s quietly bland Billy — a devoted family man who never, ever raises his voice — is every bit as powerful as his older brother. And just as unwilling to take prisoners.

Speaking of unsettling scenes, mention must be made of the film’s scariest moment, when Whitey challenges Marianne Connolly’s assertion that she has retreated to her bedroom during a dinner gathering because she’s not feeling well: an act he regards as disrespectful. Depp and Nicholson are terrific, and Cooper holds on the scene until we’re ready to scream, having already seen numerous examples of what happens when Whitey loses his temper.

That said, I’m dissatisfied by this film’s overall handling of its few female characters. Marianne Connolly is the most obvious example; we need to know her a lot better, if we’re to understand why she doesn’t run for her life, if not (at the very least) divorce her husband. This isn’t Nicholson’s fault; the script simply doesn’t grant her sufficient depth or motivation.

Similarly, Mallouk and Butterworth are sloppy in their handling of Lindsey Cyr (Dakota Johnson), established as Whitey’s longtime girlfriend in this film’s first act, and mother of his only child. Cyr simply vanishes at one point, never to be seen again. (He definitely doesn’t kill her, because Cyr is with us to this day ... and claims that she still loves him.)

Those are small issues, though, in this compelling and dense overview of the rise and fall of Whitey, Connolly and a host of others. All these dangerously colorful (and inept) characters aside, Mallouk and Butterworth also pack a lot into this 122-minute film, from Whitey’s loyalty to the IRA, to his involvement with the Miami-based jai alai scandals (the latter granting Peter Sarsgaard a memorable small role as smarmy hustler Brian Halloran).

Then there’s the intriguing relationship between Whitey and his loyal young lieutenant, Kevin Weeks (Jesse Plemons), an unimaginative thug willing to do anything his boss commands. Plemons is terrific as Weeks; we can almost hear the gears grinding behind his not-quite-vacant expression, as he slowly parses a given command or act.

Harbour’s Morris is the perfect impressionable idiot: a guy who knows full well that he shouldn’t go along with Connolly, but does so anyway. Corey Stoll brings some badly needed moral stability to the story’s third act, as federal prosecutor Fred Wyshak, apparently the first guy to see through Connolly’s blather ... and be willing to act on it.

Juno Temple also is memorable in her brief role as Deborah, a drug-addicted hooker who happens to be Flemmi’s stepdaughter ... and his mistress (!).

Even journalists O’Neill and Lehr make it into the film, as briefly portrayed by Richard Donnelly and Marc Carver.

Composer Tom Holkenborg delivers an intricate score that makes ample use of piano, cello and pipe organ for its various character themes: the ominous underscore that follows Whitey’s many bestial actions; the rising and then tragically falling melody that echoes Connolly’s inexorable slide into total corruption.

Cooper’s film may not have the full dramatic and emotional heft of Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather saga — few other films do — but it certainly belongs in the worthy company of classics such as Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas and Richard Brooks’ In Cold Blood.

And I suspect poor Boston has a long way to go, before finally getting past the havoc unleashed by Whitey Bulger and John Connolly.

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