David Strat­ton and Stephen Romei rate the latest re­leases

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents -

Not since Martin Scors­ese’s Os­car­win­ning The De­parted nine years ago has there been a gang­ster movie as good as Stu­art Cooper’s Black Mass, so per­haps it’s no co­in­ci­dence that Cooper’s film is es­sen­tially a por­trait of James “Whitey” Bul­ger, boss of South Bos­ton’s Win­ter Hill gang whose ac­tiv­i­ties formed part of the ba­sis for Scors­ese’s film.

What gives Black Mass ad­di­tional res­o­nance and depth, though, is the ex­am­i­na­tion of the un­holy al­liance be­tween Bul­ger and his child­hood friend, John Con­nolly, given the fact Bul­ger was a ruth­less gang­ster and Con­nolly an FBI spe­cial agent. Out­stand­ing per­for­mances from Johnny Depp as Bul­ger and Joel Edger­ton as Con­nolly form the core of a grip­ping crime movie made with in­tel­li­gence and style.

At first sight, Depp is unrecognisable. He looks a lit­tle like an older Jack Ni­chol­son, with his dras­ti­cally re­ced­ing hair­line, his surly, pal­lid ex­pres­sion and his pierc­ing blue eyes. A great job of makeup is the first thought that comes to you, and, in fact, maybe the makeup is at times a lit­tle too ob­vi­ous; at times it seems that la­tex takes pride of place over per­for­mance, but for­tu­nately Depp — in one of his strong­est roles in a long time — soon makes the char­ac­ter of Bul­ger all his own.

For Ir­ish-Amer­i­cans reared in South Bos­ton, loy­alty is ev­ery­thing; al­liances first made in the schoolyard can last a life­time and de­viant be­hav­iour can be over­looked in the name of friend­ship.

Bul­ger is first seen in 1975 as a rel­a­tively mi­nor crim­i­nal, leader of a small gang of tough guys, in­clud­ing Kevin Weeks (Jesse Ple­mons) and Steve Flemmi (Rory Cochrane), whose ef­forts to con­trol the streets of their dis­trict are be­ing ham­pered by the pres­ence of the mafia-aligned Angiulo gang. Bul­ger is de­voted to his mother and, in­deed, is charm­ing to lit­tle old ladies in gen­eral and any­one who poses no threat to him. He has a wife (Erica McDer­mott) and a son he adores, though his idea of pa­ter­nal ad­vice is char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally self-serv­ing. “It’s not what you do,” he tells his son, who has been pun­ished for hit­ting another kid, “it’s where. If no­body sees it, it didn’t hap­pen.”

In an in­di­ca­tion of the dif­fer­ent di­rec­tions fate has in store for ev­ery­one, Bul­ger’s brother, Billy (Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch), has risen to promi­nence in the world of pol­i­tics; Billy is a highly re­spected state sen­a­tor with the most im­pec­ca­ble con­tacts. And Con­nolly, whose FBI train­ing has even­tu­ally brought him back to his home town, is seem­ingly as far apart as it’s pos­si­ble to be from Bul­ger’s seedy and in­creas­ingly vi­o­lent world. He has been as­signed to clean up mob ac­tiv­i­ties in Bos­ton, and he sees a way of work­ing se­cretly along­side his old friend to achieve this. If Bul­ger can point Con­nolly in the di­rec­tion of his ri­val mafia gang bosses, while re­ceiv­ing tacit FBI im­mu­nity for his own ne­far­i­ous ac­tiv­i­ties, well, that cosy ar­range­ment should ben­e­fit ev­ery­one — un­til, of course, it in­evitably un­rav­els.

As the vi­o­lence in­creases and Bul­ger be­comes in­creas­ingly un­sta­ble, Con­nolly is amaz­ingly good at turn­ing a blind eye. One of Bul­ger’s once trusted lieu­tenants can re­ceive a hand­shake, then a bullet in the head; the hap­less girl­friend (Juno Tem­ple) of another Bul­ger con­fi­dant may pos­si­bly know too much, and know­ing too much can quickly get you buried.

The screen­play for the film was writ­ten by Mark Mal­louk and Jez But­ter­worth and is based on a book by Bos­ton Globe re­porters Dick Lehr and Ger­ard O’Neill (both of whom have cameos in the film). Cooper, the di­rec­tor, pre­vi­ously made Crazy Heart, which won Jeff Bridges a best ac­tor Os­car in 2009. Cooper is clearly ter­rif­i­cally good with ac­tors, and ev­ery mem­ber of the large cast here per­forms strongly.

As for Edger­ton, who is on a roll at the mo­ment af­ter the suc­cess of his di­rec­to­rial de­but, The Gift, his Con­nolly is an in­tensely con­trolled de­pic­tion of a man who de­ceives him­self so pro­foundly than he no longer knows what’s right and what’s wrong. His Bos­ton ac­cent is (I’m as­sured by those who know these things) im­pec­ca­ble, and the scene in which he in­vites Bul­ger home to din­ner and his wife (Ju­lianne Ni­chol­son) is too ter­ri­fied to join them for the meal is one of the finest in the movie.

The vi­o­lence in Black Mass is bru­tal but brief. Like Scors­ese at his best, Cooper knows the value of the sud­den, un­ex­pected flash of bru­tal­ity, but he’s also skilled at cre­at­ing sus­pense out of scenes where we, the au­di­ence, know some­thing bad is about to hap­pen. On al­most ev­ery level, this is a sat­is­fy­ing film and also a dis­turb­ing por­trait of the way the ac­tiv­i­ties of crim­i­nals and law en­force­ment agen­cies can some­times blend and merge.

Although he can hardly ri­val Bul­ger in terms of vi­o­lence, Mac­beth’s bloody ca­reer can be, and has been, em­ployed as the ba­sis for a con­tem­po­rary gang­ster film (Ken Hughes’s Joe Mac­beth in 1955 and Ge­of­frey Wright’s Mac­beth in 2006 are two ex­am­ples.) The Scot­tish play also has been filmed suc­cess­fully by Or­son Welles and Ro­man Polan­ski, so Aus­tralian di­rec­tor Justin Kurzel was fac­ing a con­sid­er­able chal­lenge in re­vi­su­al­is­ing this time­less drama of am­bi­tion, jeal­ousy and mur­der.

Kurzel’s only other fea­ture, Snow­town, was the grim, dis­turb­ing story of the ac­tiv­i­ties of a South Aus­tralian se­rial killer. The di­rec­tor is clearly drawn to bleak por­traits of vi­o­lent men, so per­haps at­tempt­ing Mac­beth was a nat­u­ral fit for him. And for the most part he’s suc­cess­ful in re-imag­in­ing the drama. Although Shake­speare’s text has been trun­cated by screen­writ­ers Todd Louiso, Michael Lesslie and Ja­cob Koskoff, the fa­mil­iar nar­ra­tive un­folds with com­mend­able clar­ity and the use of rugged lo­ca­tions in Scot­land adds im­mea­sur­ably to au­di­ence ap­pre­ci­a­tion of the prim­i­tive world in which these clans­men fought and schemed and died. The pho­tog­ra­phy, by another Aus­tralian, Adam Arka­paw, is, how­ever, strangely schiz­o­phrenic; in some scenes the des­o­late grandeur of the misty land­scape plays an evoca­tive role in the tragedy, while other scenes — es­pe­cially the key se­quence in which Macduff (Sean Harris) is made aware of the ter­ri­ble deaths of his wife (El­iz­a­beth De­bicki) and chil­dren — are ut­terly ru­ined by the in­tru­sively wob­bly hand-held cam­er­a­work that seems per­versely ea­ger to dis­tract from the ac­tors and the text.

Michael Fass­ben­der is a fine Mac­beth. When the film pre­miered ear­lier this year at Cannes there were com­plaints that his di­a­logue was dif­fi­cult to com­pre­hend, but I had no such dif­fi­culty at the screen­ing I at­tended. Equally fine is Mar­ion Cotil­lard as the schem­ing Lady Mac­beth, whose read­ing of the lines (“Who would have thought the old man had so much blood in him?”) is chill­ingly good.

Yet there’s some­thing un­sat­is­fy­ing about this Mac­beth. Per­haps it’s a dif­fi­cult play be­cause the char­ac­ters are es­sen­tially so un­sym­pa­thetic. Yet Welles and Polan­ski were able to tap into the tragedy of the man who would be king, and tragic stature is some­thing that this ver­sion, for all its at­tributes, never quite at­tains.

Left, a barely recog­nis­able Johnny Depp stars in his strong­est role in a long time in Black Mass; be­low, Michael Fass­ben­der and Mar­ion Cotil­lard are chill­ingly good as the thane and his lady in Justin Kurzel’s


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