Venice Film Fest: ‘Black Mass’ Is a Tightly Wound Piece of Work


Greetings from Venice! Or, more specifically, the 72nd Venice Film Festival, which is not held in Venice proper, but on Lido, the barrier island that separates the Venetian Lagoon from the Adriatic Sea. This is a resort island, and during festival time it’s bustling not just with film-writer types, badges dangling from lanyards, but also with happy, slightly sunburned families on holiday, shuffling along the sidewalks in flip-flops and sneakers. For movie people — an indoor tribe if ever there was one — the draw isn’t the beach, but the more than 40 films in the festival’s three main programs, including the 18 screening in competition.

The festival kicked off on Wednesday, September 2, with Icelandic filmmaker Baltasar Kormákur’s 3-D true-life climbing-disaster epic Everest, which details — from another point of view — the tragic 1996 expedition previously chronicled by Jon Krakauer in his 1997 mega-bestseller Into Thin Air. (Krakauer appears as a character in the movie, though his book is not the source for the script, written by William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy.) Everest is visually splendid, though it loses a few points for its murkiness in rendering its main characters — played by the likes of Jake Gyllenhaal and Jason Clarke — as distinct individuals. But as a picture about tragedy, despair, and snow, it’s pretty effective: The superb 3-D effects — including craggy vistas clad in frosty white icing, dangerously seductive in their beauty, and yawning cracks that seem to drop into oblivion — are likely to make you feel very small and insignificant in the context of nature and her merciless whimsy. If you’ve ever dreamed of climbing 29,000 feet of mountain in unpredictable weather, see Everest before you strap on those crampons. This is man-vs.-nature, big-time.

From Everest, this edition of the Venice Film Festival jumped directly to Boston: The first two full days of festival screenings included Tom McCarthy’s superb Spotlight, which details the Boston Globe’s uncovering of the colossal child-molestation scandal hidden for decades by the Boston Archdiocese of the Catholic Church, and Scott Cooper’s ambitious Black Mass, in which Johnny Depp plays barbarous gangster James “Whitey” Bulger, who ruled the scrubby streets of South Boston — and served as a dubiously useful FBI informant — for years before virtually disappearing into the ether in late 1994. (He was finally captured in Santa Monica in 2011, and is now serving a life sentence at USP Coleman.)

Black Mass is a tightly wound piece of work, and Cooper (Crazy Heart, Out of the Furnace) keeps its many small parts moving with ease: He’s skillful at merging telling, minute details with bigger, looping schemes. We see Whitey sitting down to play cards, circa mid-Seventies, with his senior-citizen mom (who’s shocked when he won’t take the opportunity to cheat) and working his treacherous wiles on one of his childhood pals, now grown up to be FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton). Connolly thought he could use Bulger to break up a Boston mafia syndicate, only to step all too easily into Bulger’s pit of corruption himself. (Connolly, too, is serving a prison sentence, 40 years for a second-degree murder conviction.)

Bulger’s is a horrible and brutal story, and Black Mass never shrinks from it. After he puts a bullet in the head of a crony who defies him and later tries to apologize, Bulger and his all-too-loyal henchmen bury the body under a bridge on the Neponset River, as if it were just the sort of thing you’d do on a sunny weekday, or any time, really. Most of the violence occurs off-camera, but you wouldn’t call the film tasteful: The sound of a young prostitute (Juno Temple) gasping for breath as Bulger himself squeezes the life out of her is almost more harrowing than anything Cooper might have chosen to show. And Cooper’s sprawling cast of actors — including Benedict Cumberbatch as Whitey’s stalwart but unfortunate brother, former Massachusetts Senate president Billy Bulger — are almost uniformly terrific. If you’re an expert on Boston accents, you might find a few shaky bits here and there, but nearly every actor strikes the right mood and tone, which is what counts.

The only performer I couldn’t wholly buy is Depp, wearing a prosthetic balding scalp and strange glued-on eyebrows, both of which make him look less like the real Whitey Bulger than like a bulb-headed alien from an old Twilight Zone. I could easily look beyond the makeup, but the more I watched the performance, the more mechanical it seemed: Depp as Bulger is meticulous and deliberate, scowling at his enemies (basically, everyone) through smoke-tinted aviators, or allowing some chilling pronouncement to leak from the side of his mouth. (In one sequence, he tells his young son, who has just been punished for fighting at school, “If nobody sees it, it didn’t happen.”) But as I watched, I kept thinking of another actor who had played similar roles or types, and who had perhaps done it better. Unintentionally, maybe, Depp appears to be channeling Ray Liotta, and his tics and mannerisms feel more derivative than original and complex.

In the hours since I watched Black Mass, I’ve heard numerous critics murmuring about how terrific they think Depp is, which means it won’t be long before people start using the O-word. Actually, this is the sort of performance that could easily win an Academy Award — which isn’t the same as calling it good. For years, Depp was one of our most sensitive, original actors; more recently, buried under matted pirate hair and all those layers of Tim Burton makeup, we seem to have lost him. Black Mass will probably be hailed as a Depp comeback, and that’s not a bad thing — it might help boost him out of a stagnant period. But it’s still disheartening to see such a marvelous actor running the numbers in his head instead of slipping right into a character’s skin. Whitey Bulger pulled off an almost magical disappearing act, and then managed to stay hidden for years. Maybe he’s such a sneaky, mean little creep that not even Johnny Depp can find him. That’s the mark of a really bad guy.

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Everest opens in the U.S. on September 18
Black Mass opens in the U.S. on September 18
Spotlight opens in the U.S. on November 6

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 4, 2015

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