Festival Review: Black Mass (2015)

Black Mass

Exposing the links between the FBI and Boston’s most notorious gangster, Scott Cooper’s Black Mass comes undone with a criminal lack of story.

Irish Connection

by Mark Wilshin

Black Mass

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Adapted from the book by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill, Whitey: The Life of America’s Most Notorious Mob Boss, Scott Cooper’s Black Mass is a portrait of America’s most wanted and most violent killer Jimmy “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp), who after years on the run was arrested in 2011. Aided and abetted by FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), it centres round the Irish community of “Southie” in South Boston where childhood friends end up playing cops and robbers for real. Above all, it’s a story of loyalty, as Connolly cuts a deal with Bulger whereby the gang kingpin turns informant in exchange for protection, and as Connolly brings down the mafia in North Boston it’s a pact that makes both men more successful and a helluva lot richer. And sentenced to 40 years after refusing to rat on his buddy (compared to the reduced sentences given to Jimmy’s confederates who testified against him), Connolly’s lengthy prison time is testament to the unbreakable bond between the two men. Despite moody music and a psychopathic performance from Johnny Depp, as he explodes over fingered peanuts or a divulged family secret, Scott Cooper’s Black Mass eschews the habitual narrative arc in favour of the expositional structure of a documentary, reducing his film to an unengaging series of connected episodes. It’s at its best in the recreation of an Irish community – homely, forgiving and thick as thieves. With patriotic tentacles that even stretch to trafficking arms to the IRA. And at its worst in its female characters, reduced to one-dimensional wives, bad mothers and prostitutes. But ultimately, little more than a genre exposé of American gang culture, Black Mass is a gangster mood piece. And a history of violence.

Black Mass is now showing at the London Film Festival

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