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INTERACTIVE (Rate the Review)

"The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance
of things, but their inner significance." ~ Aristotle

Cinema Signal: Not quite a green light but has elements of strong appeal for a limited audience. MOBILE version |
. "Black Mass"

There probably aren't very many students of career criminality who would argue that Irish mobster James "Whitey" Bulger wasn't one of the most sociopathic monsters of his time who "got away" with numerous atrocities during his organized rule over south Boston for sixteen years. But, then, not every gangster then or now enjoyed the skein of protection provided by a senator brother, William "Billy" Bulger (Benedict Cumberbatch) and a corrupt FBI agent, James Connolly (Joel Edgerton). These alliances, it's fair to say, kept him safe in his criminal groove and probably deepened his sense of invincibility no matter what he did to his rivals and enemies.

Those would primarily be the Angiulo brothers whose power to control North Boston in 1975 was rising and threatening him, his Irish-American Winter Hill Gang, and his family. Tied to the Mafia, this group's avoidance of police detection created a singular stroke of good luck for Whitey.

Stepping into the picture (in a major way), recently advanced Boston FBI agent Billy Connelly, Whitey's boyhood chum, proposes that the mobster cooperate with the agency in providing the evidence they need to bring down the Angiulos. Bulger cannily labels his position an "alliance" in order to avoid the stamp of "rat" from his profile.

What the ensuing biography chronicles,is an adaptation of Dick Lehr and Gaerd O'Neill's book, "Black Mass: The Irish Mob, The FBI and a Devil's Deal" (2000). It's almost too campy for words, if you forget it's fact-based and depp is the anti-hero. You don't care for the guy -- of course not. But, you're intrigued with him and with FBI's Connolly's ability to mask what he's been doing to cover for the crime lord. As children, Whitey protected him.

The script, written by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth, the direction by Scott Cooper, the music, the straightforward cinematography, plus costumes and everything else on the production side is evidence of an atttempt to leave no doubt that this is a substantial true crime story that would be unbelievable were it not verified by contemporary news reports, survivors and eye witnesses. It makes for a dark and sordid character tale.

The latter, of course, begins with Johnny Depp who puts aside his specialty in childlike fantasy as Jack Sparrow in the "Pirates of the Caribbean" series and the Mad Hatter in "Alice in Wonderland," etc.) for a role that's the direct opposite. But, then, it's his straight dramatic work that's of the greatest interest: ("Public Enemies," "Transcendence"). Here he shows us what he can do to with psycho-scary instead of charming, funny and slightly idiotic. And, the effect is spellbinding.

Depp creates (or, re-creates) a man whose mere look is a mark of doom; whose gentle love and understanding (if that's what it was) of his mother merely reminds us of how it contrasts against the fear he casts elsewhere; how he personally kills people rather than ordering it to be done because the lie or disloyalty is just that great.

For Joel Edgerton, this could be a star-making role; while I felt that Cumberbatch was cast more because he's red hot these days than for contributing some enlightenment to a complex story (although what it lacks may be in the writing of the part). The wives, Julianne Nicholson and Dakota Johnson (for Connelly and Whitey), seem accepting. up to a point, but negatively strident, doing the biopic little good.

Director Scott Cooper ("Crazy Heart," "Out of the Furnace") seems comfortable with the aim to dig into a vile man whose legend is as horrific as it is unique. Cooper employs the technique of using interviews as narration to cover gaps in time over the course of a life committed to appalling acts and increasing betrayals.

The film depicts the trail of conscienceless depravity Bulger left in his wake, with the occasional hint of humanity. The visual and musical minimalism conveys the somber reality in which the subject strove for dominance in a world of corruption. The overlord of crime, marking his time with the presence of evil.

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                                                                              ~~  Jules Brenner  

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