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'Black Mass' provides dark themes and thrills

September 24, 2015

One of Boston’s darkest denizens comes to life thanks to excellent acting and great direction, though viewing a biographical film like "Black Mass" teaches a harsh reality of all films like it.

A film like this though feels like it should have been made already, because its story is a look into one of the FBI’s biggest shames and one of this country’s most infamous criminals: James “Whitey” Bulger, an Irish gangster who ran the Winter Hill Gang in the 70s up to the mid-90s. I was ever thankful that it was finally told, for the true events that transpire in this film make for great entertainment.

The dirty dealings of the time, such as all the death and dirty dealings, are rendered quite well by the film’s director Scott Cooper. This being his first film foray into telling tales of crime and rascality, he does a great job portraying the dark alliance that was made between the FBI and Bulger’s gang to rid the streets of an Italian-American gang that was worse as Bulger.

"Black Mass"—appropriately titled—is filmed with dark filters and is set in the grim places of Boston. Even the character of Bulger is mostly shown with a dark leather jacket, which makes him blend into the darkest crevices of his hometown.

The film’s soundtrack is low and booming, using deep strings that seem to stretch into the dark matter of your head. You feel like you are hearing the soundtrack of Bulger’s black heart. Elements like this help to heighten the film above weaker biographical films.

Most of the film’s success is due to the actor playing Bulger—Johnny Depp—and the character of Bulger himself. Bulger is portrayed in the film as a family-oriented man, caring very much about honor and loyal friendship, and brutally punishing those who transgress his boundaries. Depp perfectly creates a character unlike the usual quirky characters he has played in films before. In "Black Mass" he is pale, balding, grimy, and intimidating.

You feel like at any moment Bulger will snap and attack anyone in his life. Even when he chats with an old lady, you can’t help but feel like these will be her last words. Much credit must be given to Depp for this portrayal, and making for a memorable character that will linger in people’s heads.

However much credit I can give to the film, some of its inspirations can’t help but to make me feel like I’ve seen some of it before. Chief among them is the obvious inspirations found from this film’s predecessor, The Godfather.

The soundtrack at times feels eerily similar to Nino Rota’s music from Francis Ford Coppola’s film. Both even share a scene in a church, but where Michael Corleone ascends into the criminal world, in "Black Mass" Whitey Bulger falls from grace.

Inspiration is fine, but it feels odd when inserted into a bio film like this one, for it feels like it obfuscates the real world a bit and returns you to fictional storytelling. "Black Mass" did raise the question to me as to how objective a bio film has a responsibility to be in order to capture reality, but perhaps that’s a question for another time.

"Black Mass" makes for an interesting character study of an unscrupulous person bound by the honors of his old world and becoming a king of crime, and I do wonder what place it will take in film history in retrospect. For all its parts, it still feels like a film I’ve seen before, and perhaps the problems of its originality will hurt it in the future.

It may not do much that is new, nor does it push any boundaries for its genre, but "Black Mass" is still a film I can recommend, for it reminds us that every now and then we need to stare a bit into the abyss, and remember that we must blink.