The gangster flick is one of cinemas oldest genres with its origins in the film noirs of the 1930s and 40s which set the template for many of the films we know today. Films like The Big Sleep, Out of the Past, Key Largo and even Gilda have had a long legacy with their focus on the perpetrators of organised crime in America. Originally reliant on menacing character rather than overt violence, the implication of threat and perhaps a hammy punch or two were all the censors would allow, these films were incredibly moral with the good guys and bad guys getting the right ending.
And in the years since, while the films first became increasingly brutal with often graphic depictions of violence (think Scarface, Goodfellas or even Reservoir Dogs), they have graduated to presenting the gangster as a glamorous figure living in a world of power and respect, which recent films like Legend have done much to perpetuate. How refreshing then that Scott Cooper’s new film Black Mass which received its UK premiere at the London Film Festival this week may signal a return to depicting this world as grim, dangerous and non-aspirational, punctuated with moments of alarming violence that seem a far cry from the arty portrayals of recent years.
The story is a true one, that of the American gangster Jimmy ‘Whitey’ Bulger (Johnny Depp) whose growing dominance of Boston is depicted in three key stages in the 1970s and 80s, during which time he developed an ‘alliance’ with the FBI, nominally as an informant but actually in extracting information from the Bureau to neutralise his competitors. Bulger managed this through his relationship with John Connolly who grew up together in The Projects choosing different sides of the law. But when Connolly approached Bulger to work with the FBI to bring down the Mafia, it opened up a new world of prosperity and unchallenged dominance for both of them. Running alongside this, although not fully explored, is Bulger’s relationship with his Senator brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch) who has a clear affection for his sibling if an ambiguous knowledge of his criminal activities. So Black Mass as well a biography is the story of the blurred boundary between crime and law enforcement where the allure of power and loyalty is far from black and white.
Coming to this with virtually no knowledge of Bulger it’s episodic style takes a little while to get into the story and piece things together, but you’re very quickly drawn into the this excellent no-frills gangster movie. It success comes through the intriguing characters that keep you engrossed as the sense of danger ebbs and flows throughout. Central to this story is actually Connolly (Joel Edgerton), Bulger’s childhood friend who returns to the neighbourhood as an FBI agent and hopes to use that relationship to entrap bigger criminals with information Bulger can supply on their activities. What transpires is much more interesting than a straightforward story of gangster-tuned-nark and it is Connolly who becomes attracted to and embroiled in Bulger’s affairs while simultaneously protecting him from his FBI colleagues. This is where Edgerton’s performance is particularly effective – this portrayal of a man whose head is turned by the excitement of the gangster’s world and the sense of complacent respect it gives him. You see him frequently walking into the FBI offices as though his is untouchable and fobbing his colleagues off to keep them at bay while he manipulates the ’intel’ he supposedly receives from his friend. In a key moment his increasingly fearful wife notes that he’s wearing a new suit and his stance has changed to a swagger, showing how he’s morphing into one of Bulger’s henchmen. Later in the film as the net closes in, Edgerton is also very good at portraying the desperation and fear that his web of deceit has created.
One of the great things about a film festival is how often you see work where actors have upped their game. I recently noted that Helena Bonham Carter had given her best performance in years in Suffragette and here her regular Burton-film collaborator Johnny Depp does the same as Bulger. Like Bonham Carter, it’s nice to see Depp in a straight acting role, no gimmicks, no quirks, no ticks, just a pure performance and it’s a great reminder of what he’s capable of. His Bulger is a constant seething presence in this film, almost always restrained, totally controlled so when he does lose his temper it’s terrifying. There are lots of classic gangster tropes to navigate – relationship with mum (see also Legend), relationship with son, volatile relationship with wife and beloved by the community that he protects by helping old ladies across the road with their shopping (again see Legend) – but Depp takes all of that and still makes you believe that his Bulger is a ruthless killer and convincing leader of a crime empire.
There’s good additional support for a host of famous faces including Kevin Bacon as Connolly’s FBI boss whose suspicions of Bulger increase as time goes on, as well as actors you’ll recognise from House of Cards and The Newsroom. In a small but interesting role Benedict Cumberbatch plays Billy Bulger a local Senator who has an affectionate relationship with his brother and is one that retains a significant degree of ambiguity. With both men still alive it’s clearly difficult to imply that a former Senator would have knowledge or even engagement with criminal activities, but while Cumberbatch gives a good performance as the authority figure / family man, it does seem a shame that such a fascinating avenue remains unexplored – particularly as two brothers chose such completely different paths. It would also have added a stronger leg to the gangster-FBI-politician triangle which implies a level of corruption allowing all three to prosper.
Those tiny caveats aside this is an excellent film and one that successfully manages to convey just how grim that time was – Masanobu Takayanagi’s cinematography and the design decisions almost make this look as though it was filmed in the 70s and 80s. Best of all, it never looks glamorous which seems to be a departure from the usual style of modern gangster movies making this actually much grittier and believable because of it. It’s certainly a far cry from Legend (which admittedly had a slightly different agenda), and in fact has more in common with the look and feel of A Most Wanted Man Anton Corbijn’s similarly grainy adaption of John le Carre’s novel staring Rachel McAdam and Philip Seymore Hoffman. Black Mass is a great addition to the gangster film collection, packed with fantastic performances and a thoroughly engrossing story. Even the concluding notes will leave you with plenty of questions about the nature of corruption and justice. And who knows, this may signal a turning point in the presentation of gangster violence on screen ushering in a bleaker style that more accurately reflects the threat of that world.
Black Mass was shown at the London Film Festival. It opens nationwide on 27 November. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1