Black Mass

A glamorous Sunday night at the LFF saw me first giving a speech at the W Hotel in Leicester Square for the lovely people at Virgin Atlantic who let me make the wonderful What’s on Vera highlights show on board their flights.

It’s one of my favourite gigs, and I’m always happy to see Virgin Atlantic’s continued and vigorous support of film, so it’s been great that they came back to be a main sponsor at the LFF again this year, with the pretty good choice of Black Mass as their gala.

The film stars Johnny Depp – who was on the red carpet with Amber Heard – and for once he was not doing an impression of an old pop star or some wild comic mugging, but actually doing some acting, as James Whitey Bulger, a psychopathic criminal who ruled Boston’s Southey district in the 1980s, helped mainly by the FBI.

The film shows the old Southey boys’ club connections. Bulger’s violent reign is allowed to continue because his childhood friend John Connolly (very well played by Joel Edgerton, the real star of the show) believes he is using his friendship with Bulger to get information on the Italian-run mafia in another part of town.

Meanwhile, Bulger’s brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch) has risen to become a Senator for Massachusetts, so we’re talking about one very well connected gangster here. He’s a rather ungrateful one, though. Depp plays Bulger with white eyes and a high, bald forehead. It’s a bit off-putting at first, but he grows into the “costume” and conveys as much menace as he can. Still, I can’t see any Oscars coming his way as it’s hardly a new take on such a role.

To be honest, it’s not a particularly original-looking film, owing too much to Goodfellas and myriad other gangster pic epics. But it does have a wide reach that brings into question those classic all-American screen values of crime, the law, corruption and money. There’s a bit of religion – Irish Catholicism – thrown in, but very scantly, more in the inference of that Mass in the title, being both Massachusetts and the church service. The film is structured mostly as lengthy flashbacks, framed by the perps confessing their sins.. to police, not priests.

It might have worked better as a sort of 8-part TV series, like a True Detective, because I couldn’t quite figure where the centre of the film lay. I didn’t like anyone, nor feel for them nor understand their motives much. And this maybe because director Scott Cooper (he did the very different Crazy Heart, which earned Jeff Bridges an Oscar as the grizzled country singer) crams so much in, with little parts for Dakota Johnson, Kevin Bacon, Peter Sarsgaard. I think there was originally a part for Sienna Miller but that’s been cut out. Cumberbatch, good as he is to watch, is a bit wasted and under-developed, too.

I know this is a film about violence and criminals, but there’s not much humour of the gangster-banter variety either, particularly when Bulger gets involved with the ridiculous new sport of Jai Lai. For all the money they’re allegedly making, no-one is having much fun. Particularly the women.

Still, I liked quite a few aspects of it, mainly because, you know, I don’t mind a gangster pic. It’s good on fat, swollen faces, on frank murder and on loyalties – or rather disloyalties. Everyone seems to be snitching on everyone else, making plea bargains, saving their own skins, even while talking about the bonds of growing up together on the streets. I wouldn’t trust any of them.