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By Brian Lafferty

September 27, 2015 (San Diego) – Black Mass (Scott Cooper, 2015) sounds like a video game title, but it’s definitely not fun and games. I went to bed a few hours after the screening unprepared for a restless night’s sleep. I endured a string of haunting dreams that was mercifully broken up by The Rascals’ A Beautiful Morning, the world’s best morning alarm.

The story of monster mobster James “Whitey” Bulger inevitably attracted much interest among filmmakers following his federal trial and subsequent conviction for murder, racketeering, and other criminal transgressions. It began last year with the documentary Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger (Joe Berlinger, 2014) from the director best known for his investigative documentaries about the West Memphis Three (Paradise Lost, etc.). This year, the story of South Boston’s arguably most infamous man gets the biopic treatment with Black Mass. The screenplay by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth details the rampant corruption within the F.B.I. that enabled Bulger (Johnny Depp) to control South Boston at the expense of at least a dozen lives.

As Bulger, Depp is cold, emotionless, and unpredictable. If looks could kill, his murder count would be in the triple digits; deep dark shadows cover his piercing blue eyes. He has only one facial expression, a penetrating scowl burned into his face. He speaks in a dead serious low tone of voice that never rises. His words flow out of his lips in an uneven rhythm, which slyly broadcasts his unstable mental state. These traits in concert form a wholly menacing personality that envelops every scene to the point where any scene when he’s not on screen provides respite. Every conversation witnessed between Bulger and other characters gives a sinking feeling that it could be his or her very last. It doesn’t matter if the person is a family member, trusted associate, or a stranger. It’s never clear if he’s being funny or if he’s serious. It’s never a matter of if but when he’ll lash out violently. Even if you know without a doubt he’ll kill someone, the filmmakers leave no indicators as to when exactly it will happen.

Sometimes the most chilling acts of violence don’t necessarily require gallons of fake blood. Numerous people receive a bullet to the brain and others get a tremendous and bloody beating. Bulger’s most horrifying murders, however, don’t require a firearm, blunt object, or any other deadly weapon. In one scene, he bails a prostitute (Juno Temple) out of jail after he discovers his associate Steve Flemmi (Rory Cochrane) used her services. Worried that she talked to the police about him, he interrogates her. She’s an innocent woman, or at least as innocent as a prostitute can possibly be, with a sweet voice and a slightly cheerful disposition. She denies telling the police anything that would incriminate Bulger and his men. To a reasonable person she appears to be telling the truth.

But Bulger is not a reasonable person. He drives her, Flemmi, and another associate to a vacant house. There, he lures her to a room and abruptly grabs her, puts her in a chokehold, and applies massive pressure. The look of horror on her face knowing she’s going to die is bad enough to see. The cold-hearted, unfeeling glare on Bulger’s face is worse. Then the camera moves to the left, focusing on Flemmi’s look of sadness and regret. It doesn’t get any better. Her cries diminish in volume with each passing second, and then reduce to squeaks until she goes silent. This strangling lasts for probably only thirty seconds, more or less. That doesn’t seem like much time. Considering the scene’s brutality, however, it feels like an eternity and a half.

The screenplay is chock full of ear-pleasing dialogue, but the story structure leaves a little to be desired. Most glaring is the disconcertedly inserted subplot revolving around Bulger’s involvement in Jai Alai. The more I reflect on the movie, the more I feel this subplot is unnecessary. Encountering it is like reading an otherwise logically constructed and naturally flowing essay disrupted by a poorly written, irrelevant paragraph that somehow got overlooked during revision. Characters are introduced, never fully developed, and later killed. The only thing this Jai Alai subplot adds is padding to the runtime.

While that subplot is easy to forget, at least the same cannot be said about the movie as a whole. It’s easy to call just about any excellent movie unforgettable. This one cannot be forgotten no matter how much you try. Before the screening, I ran into a co-worker at the mall. The next day at work she asked me if I recommended it. I had to think about it. After a brief rumination, I said yes. Whether I would want to see it again is another matter.

Black Mass is currently playing in wide release.

A Warner Bros. Pictures release. Director: Scott Cooper. Screenplay: Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth, based on the book “Black Mass: The True Story of an Unholy Alliance Between the FBI and the Irish Mob” by Dick Lehr and Gerard O'Neill. Original Music: Tom Holkenborg. Cinematography: Masanobu Takayanagi. Cast: Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dakota Johnson, Kevin Bacon, Peter Sarsgaard, Jesse Plemons, Rory Cochrane, David Harbour, Adam Scott, Corey Stoll, and Julianne Nicholson. Running time: 122 minutes. Rated R.

Brian Lafferty welcomes letters at brian@eastcountymagazine.org.

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