Sun 4 Oct 2015
The season for screening films with ambitions for Academy Awards must have started. Black Mass is directed by Scott Cooper – a relative newcomer (this is only his third film) but a rising star among directors at Hollywood if we are to judge the impressing cast he succeeds to enroll – better and better and certainly more expensive from movie to movie. It seems to meet at least a few conditions to enter the competition for Academy nominations. It stars Johnny Depp in a role we barely recognize him which may well get him into the Final 5. It tells a story that captured at some point in time the interest and imagination of big audiences, and it deals with a Big American character. The fact that this character is a despicable gangster, who was in control of one of the lead Mafia gangs (‘the Irish one’) in Boston in the 80s and early 90s and was responsible for numerous murders and organized crime felonies may eventually matter when the jury will debate. Or maybe not. Until then, let us take our places in the theaters or download from the Internet and watch the movies.
James ‘Whitey’ Bulger now serving a couple of life sentences is the kind of anti-hero America is fascinated with. The story starts in 1975, when Bulger is enrolled as an informant by the FBI – a status which together with the family ties (his brother played by Benedict Cumberbatch was a state senator) ensured him two decades of immunity and the almost total dominance on the crime industries in the Boston area after eliminating (with the help of the police and justice system) the Italian rival gangs. The story on screen mentions nothing about the still not elucidated episode of the murder of the ”Lady of the Dunes” that took place a year before, but does include the death of Bulger’s only child that actually took place in 1973. From this episode we may or maybe are supposed to understand the motivations of his violence and lack of respect for law or human life? Quite thin for an explanation in my opinion. Despite Depp’s fantastic acting the man behind the crimes remains an enigma.
The rest is a ‘true crime’ story (the film is inspired by a true crime book) with the relations between the boss and his acolytes, the treasons and executions of the traitors, the have-heard-it-already rants about the Mafia honor code, with corrupt cops and victimized girlfriends, and with a twist towards Bulger’s support for Irish nationalism and terror movements, which was part of the reasons that led to his eventual fall. It started quite confusing to my taste, it improved as the story grew and the relation between characters became more clear (and the number of characters decreased ) but it did not reach any of the peaks of the genre like in Scorsese’s films or in Mystic River. Depp’s performance is hypnotic, I will try a metaphor and say that he brings death to his hero on screen. Cumberbatch on the other hand will not get another Academy nomination for his role here. I know nothing at this point about the other candidates, but in an average to weak year I would bet for a couple of awards.