In theory, selling one’s soul does have many benefits — getting all that you desire and then some in exchange for one small thing. The key words in that sentence are and then some, because once you have it, can you really be content with what you have, or do you have to go deeper? Questions of a similar ilk are asked in Scott Cooper (Out of the Furnace)’s stellar new film, Black Mass, about the ill-advised and ill-fated deal struck between the FBI and Boston gangster James “Whitey” Bulger.
Too often with biographical pictures, you remember that you are watching A-listers playing real people. That being said, in a way that few other actors have before, Johnny Depp (Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl) excels in his portrayal of Whitey Bulger, with all the innocence of a playground bully and all the terror that Satan himself could ever possess. It doesn’t take long to forget that he is an actor — he becomes the scariest bastard you’ve ever seen. If he does not win Best Actor next year, then the Oscars intelligentsia will have royally screwed the pooch.
Joel Edgerton (The Gift)’s portrayal of FBI Agent John Connolly is one of a man broken by his own allegiances, one of a childhood friendship with Bulger, the other to the bureau and, by association, the United States of America. Choosing the former drags himself deeper into willful ignorance and pathetic nihilism, leading him to his ultimate fate. Edgerton pulls off this role with aplomb, and wisely makes no attempt to appeal this character to the audience.
Going from Masterpiece to Massachusetts is Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game) as Senator Bill Bulger, brother of Whitey and as complicit as Connolly. Cumberbatch masters the Boston accent and, in raising his voice ever so slightly, also convinces the audience of being someone other than himself — it’s little things like those that can make the performance all the more convincing.
Corey Stoll (Midnight in Paris), making his entrance in the third act of the film as Fred Wyshak, a federal agent who, unlike Connolly’s entourage, cannot be bought and seeks to bring Bulger down. In the midst of all the corruption taking place, his appearance is a breath of fresh air to a viewer trapped in putrid darkness. That being said, the light in said darkness is David Harbour (Quantum of Solace)’s portrayal of Agent John Morris, a confidante of Connolly’s who, under pressure of a guilty conscience, exposes his superior and Bulger’s shady deal and everything in between.
The creative crew behind the film does a fine job, particularly cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi (The Grey), with gritty close-ups populating the film and almost experimental focuses, but the real lynchpin of the film is, in point of fact, its score, created by DJ-turned-film composer Tom Holkenborg (Mad Max: Fury Road). Muted yet powerful, it enhances the story and actions onscreen, in the same way that his instructor, Hans Zimmer, did with his score for Frost/Nixon.
Black Mass is a brilliant showcase of the horror in ignorance and the shame of dealing with the devil, even if he is your boyhood chum. This movie comes highly recommended, for the aforementioned reasons and education come next year’s Academy Awards.