15 – 118mins – 2015
Based upon the 2001 non-fiction chronicle by former newspaper reporters Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill, a stellar ensemble cast including Benedict Cumberbatch, Dakota Johnson and Kevin Bacon all play second fiddle to a balding Johnny Depp in this often grim dramatization of the 1975-1995 criminal career of South Boston’s Irish mob leader, James “Whitey” Bulger.
Not since Public Enemies in 2009 has Depp had the opportunity to shift from wacky wally to wryly wretched, but Black Mass is just that solemn showcase. Portraying the feared and felonious Whitey, head of the Winter Hill Gang – and brother to Massachusetts State Senate President, Billy Bulger (Cumberbatch) – makes for a stark (and welcome) change of direction for the Hollywood heartthrob, who has made quite the name for himself playing camp and colourful extroverts.
Entering into a problematic devil’s deal with childhood pal and FBI agent John Connelly (Joel Edgerton) to act as a “criminal informer”, Whitey believes that by getting the Feds to fight his battles for him and bring down the Italian mob, he will receive free reign to do whatever he likes. But the tragic deaths of his young son (Luke Ryan) and elderly mother (Mary Klug) pushes the infamous crime lord – and his ‘business associates’ – further down a dark path from which there is no immunity.
“It’s not what you do, it’s when and where you do it.”
Ostensibly comparable to last year’s Tom Hardy double-hander Krays biopic Legend (in theme if not in period detail), director Scott Crazy Heart Cooper instead avoids any whiff of grisly black humour here, playing this violent thriller deadly straight. There are attempts to endue Bulger’s wrongdoing with a maudlin rationale, but the steely-eyed and stony-faced gangster is too depraved to evoke compassion.
On the run for eleven years and only arrested in 2011, Black Mass’s persistently sombre and severe tone achieves the desired effect of painting the life of a “strictly criminal” felon as a despairingly lonely one.
15 – 108mins – 2015
KAN OF WORMS
Charlize Theron heads up a thoroughly sullen cast who all play world weary compassion-vacuums in this competently plotted but grim miscarriage of justice thriller – which left any thrills behind on the page. Adapted from Gillian Gone Girl Flynn’s bestselling 2009 novel, it is telling that this lesser film was shot before but quietly slipped out after David Fincher’s superior conversion lit up the silver screen two years ago.
Having witnessed – and been the sole survivor of – a home invasion which saw her mother and sisters brutally murdered in 1985, Kansas City dweller Libby Day (Theron) has grown into a jittery and jaded mess of an adult. It was her questionable testimony at just 8 years old which saw her older brother (Corey Stoll) imprisoned for the crime, but now a group of true-crime enthusiasts are dredging up the past in an attempt to overturn what they consider a wrongful verdict, causing Libby to re-evaluate her memories of that tragic night.
Flitting between then and now as light is shone upon the infamous case by Nicholas Hoult’s investigative nosey parkers “The Kill Club”, it is instantly obvious that Libby’s brother is not the murderer – not that the responsively-ambiguous teenage rebel (played by Tye Sheridan in flashbacks) does much to help clear his name (or garner sympathy) as some truly disturbing charges are levelled at him.
This lack of energy is common throughout the cast, as Christina Hendricks barely registers any of the horrors that surround her as the Day’s floundering matriarch. Theron, meanwhile, plays haunted Libby as a solemn cow quick to snap. You understand why she is how she is, but it is hard to like someone who refuses to let anyone get within five paces.
As the title suggests, Dark Places is pitch black in both subject matter and tone. Slaughter, criminal injustice, teenage pregnancy, broken families, child abuse, drug addicts and Satanism are not the cheeriest of subjects in their own right, but when compounded into a slow-reveal mystery narrative, the bleakness and lack of pace do not do each other any favours. As the not-substantial runtime ticked by, I found myself all the more often checking the time and begging for a ray of light to brighten this uncomfortable and morbid affair.