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Devil worship on Boston's mean streets


Black Mass (MA). Director: Scott Cooper. Starring: Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Peter Sarsgaard, David Harbour, Jesse Plemons, Juno Temple. 122 minutes

I've long been an admirer of Johnny Depp as a film actor — particularly during his 1990s heyday. Depp's emo riff on Frankenstein's monster in Edward Scissorhands, his suitably deranged take on the great 'bad' Hollywood filmmaker Ed Wood, and his manic portrayal of Hunter S. Thompson avatar Raoul Duke in Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, all displayed an uncanny mastery of his verbal and physical toolkit, as he brought equal parts lunacy, humanity and authenticity to these cartoonish characters.

Yet in recent years, the Depp bag of tricks seems to have grown threadbare. It's not that his skill has abated, necessarily. It's just that over the past decade or so, through his incessant collaborations with Tim Burton (a once fruitful creative partnership that has grown stale) and the interminable Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, Depp has exposed himself as an actor of endless technical ability, and little depth. In the case of more serious efforts, such as his latest, Black Mass, it is to the film's great detriment.

Depp's portrayal here of James 'Whitey' Bulger, the real-life Boston ganster who for two decades (from 1975) thrived under the misguided protection of the FBI, strikes an extremely effective sinister note — and barely strays from it throughout the film's two-hour running time. Early in the film, we are told that a personal tragedy changed Whitey for the worse, and for good; said tragedy plays out on-screen, yet Depp's Bulger seems to be the same sadistic bastard either side of this alleged turning point.

Committed though the performance might be, this lack of depth robs relationships of resonance, and the film of complexity. This is true especially of Bulger's relationship with his politician brother, Billy (Cumberbatch). Sure, the fact that Cumberbatch and Depp bear no physical resemblance whatsoever doesn't help matters. But more than this, there is no chemistry to speak of, to convince the audience for even a second that these two are brothers who happen to be on very different life trajectories.

In truth, Black Mass is bustling with actors who step up to steal Depp's thunder. Sarsgaard appears as a jumpy, devious minion; Harbour as Connolly's skittish accomplice in the FBI; an under-utilised Plemons (Breaking Bad's epitome of evil, Todd) as a sinister Bulger protege; and a scene-stealing Temple as a chatty, doomed prostitute. Depp, on the other hand, turns in a brand of uglified character acting that, while it may well attract award nominations, is not robust enough to be truly memorable.

It's a shame, because Black Mass, though slickly produced, written and directed, relies on its characters to elevate it. Thankfully it has Edgerton, who picks up a good deal of Depp's slack. He plays FBI agent Connolly, who grew up in the same neighbourhood as Bulger, and whose ascension through the ranks of the FBI is closely tied to his use, and protection, of Bulger as a source. Depp may have top billing, but it is Connolly's story, given emotional heft and moral complexity by Edgerton, that is most compelling.

A Black Mass is a travesty of the Catholic Mass in worship of the devil. In this instance it is a metaphor for Connolly's devotion to Bulger, which is due in part to the social benefit he attains through his association with this powerful criminal, but in fact runs all the way back to a formative childhood encounter, that is hinted at but not articulated in detail. Of the flatly villainous Bulger and the wilfully corrupt and compromised Connolly, the latter is thus far more interesting, and subtly, palpably evil.

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is assistant editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Black Mass, Scott Cooper, Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dakota Johnson, Kevin Bacon



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Existing comments

It is widely reported that above movie will have a new title [no doubt out of respect for the Most Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. A Black Mass is a ritual characterized by the inversion of the Traditional Latin Mass celebrated by the Roman Catholic Church. The history of such rituals is unclear before the modern era. The Black Mass was allegedly celebrated during the Witches' Sabbath Some suggest Black Mess as new title

Father John George | 08 October 2015  

The satanic black mass is found in the Satanic Bible = a collection of essays, observations, and rituals published by Anton LaVey in 1969. It contains the core principles of LaVeyan Satanism, and is considered the foundation of its philosophy and dogma. It has been described as the most important document to influence contemporary Satanism. Though The Satanic Bible is not considered to be sacred scripture in the way the Christian Bible is to Christianity, LaVeyan Satanists regard it as an authoritative text as it is a contemporary text that has attained for them scriptural status. It extols the virtues of exploring one's own nature and instincts. Believers have been described as "atheistic Satanists" because they believe that God is not an external entity, but rather something that each person creates as a projection of his or her own personality—a benevolent and stabilizing force in his or her life. There have been thirty printings of The Satanic Bible, through which it has sold over a million copies.

Father John George | 08 October 2015  

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