Out of the Furnace

Black Mass

For some reason, organized crime lends itself well to cinematic storytelling. Classics like The Godfather and Goodfellas come to mind, their appeal lying in the allure of pulling back the veil to expose a world that we’d never otherwise see. Black Mass fits squarely within the genre, recounting the exploits of notorious Boston gangster James “Whitey” Bulger. While not without its shortcomings, I found Black Mass compelling, due in large part to a superb performance from Johnny Depp (Mortdecai, Transcendence), one of the most versatile actors of our time.

The film begins in the early 1970s, introducing us to Bulger, a low-level hood navigating the streets of South Boston. Bulger is in clear command of his small group of associates, engendering respect within the community. Loyalty is an essential attribute for any foot soldier, and Bulger inspires such devotion in the brutal, insular enclave known as “Southie.” Bulger operated brazenly, largely because he struck a deal with the FBI to inform on his rivals, shrewdly keeping the Feds at bay while eliminating his competition. From Bulger’s perspective this was not “snitching,” because he wasn’t ratting on any close friends, only his enemies – the Italian Mafia in Boston.

I noticed that the film never really delved into a depiction of Bulger’s criminal enterprise; it only mentioned that he was involved in drugs, vending machines, rackets, etc. Filmmaker Scott Cooper (Out of the Furnace) never shows us Bulger’s operation, and we are told about rather than shown his ascent up the criminal ladder. Joel Edgerton (The Gift) co-stars as FBI agent John Connolly, a childhood friend to Bulger whose loyalty gave Bulger carte blanche in Southie. Connolly essentially acts as Bulger’s eyes and ears in the Bureau, giving him unparalleled sway in South Boston.

I’ve seen some criticism of Depp’s performance, and find it baffling that anyone would find fault with that particular aspect of the film. He was menacing, exuding a chilling presence that emanated from every scene and steely stare. This is the Johnny Depp that I like, not the quirky weirdo from Pirates of the Caribbean or Charlie And the Chocolate Factory. I thought he gave Bulger complexity, and I didn’t think his performance was one-note. I contrasted his depravity with the humanity Bulger showed in relation to his son and mother, which were moments of compassion and sensitivity. However, make no mistake: Bulger was a monster. He would devour anyone, and when he told one character that he’d eat him – I believed it. A few memorable scenes solidified this sentiment, particularly one involving Bulger and Connolly’s wife Marianne. Depp nailed it, and this scene captured both Bulger’s psychosis and Connolly’s weak complicity to perfection.

While watching Black Mass, I couldn’t help but be reminded of 2006’s The Departed, which was loosely based on Bulger. If you’ve seen that film, it may be helpful to think of Depp/Bulger as Jack Nicholson and Edgerton/Connolly as Matt Damon’s character, at least initially. Of course The Departed is a superior film, but I digress. Black Mass’ cast was stellar, and having the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game) and Kevin Bacon (Cop Car) in ancillary roles only bolstered the overall weight of the film. I’m a fan of the genre, so I noticed an homage (or rip-off) of the classic scene from Goodfellas when Joe Pesci yanks Ray Liotta’s chain when a joke goes awry. I don’t know if this was intentional or accidental, but it reminded me that although Black Mass is a solid addition to the genre, it isn’t replacing any of our favorites. Depp can flourish in these types of roles (evidenced here as well as in earlier works like Blow and Donnie Brasco) and should take on the task more often. While some aspects of the film could’ve been improved upon from a storytelling perspective, the principals (Depp and Edgerton) really delivered. Grade: A-


Jake Gyllenhaal (Nightcrawler) is becoming one of my favorite actors, though I’ll admit that I may have been slow to recognize his abilities. I’d always thought he turned in good performances, but it wasn’t until last year’s Nightcrawler that I finally realized how talented he is. When I think about his career thus far, I’m most impressed by his versatility. From Donnie Darko to Brokeback Mountain to Jarhead– he transforms himself completely on screen. In Antoine Fuqua’s latest offering Southpaw, Gyllenhaal is masterful as Billy Hope, a boxer whose life unravels in the wake of tragedy.

Billy Hope embodies the rags to riches bootstrapping ethos of many professional athletes. He overcame a rough childhood in foster care, rising to the pinnacle of his sport as an undefeated world champion. He remains loyal to his childhood friends and his wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams, Aloha), who was also raised in the system. They live in a huge mansion with their ten-year-old daughter Leila, enjoying all the trappings of Billy’s success while remaining true to their humble beginnings.

Trash-talk and boxing go hand in hand, so initially Billy is dismissive when challenged by upstart Miguel “Magic” Escobar, who wants a shot at the title. Billy tries to laugh off Escobar’s assertion that he’s “never been hit by a real man,” but his newfound nemesis is relentless in his provocation. After a particularly nasty insult aimed at Maureen, a brawl between the fighters and their respective camps ensues. Shots ring out in the fracas, and Maureen is fatally wounded. In the aftermath of this devastating tragedy, Billy completely unravels. Consumed by grief, he is incapable of being the support system Leila so desperately needs after the loss of her mother. When she is taken into child protective services, Billy has no one to blame but himself. Will he regain custody? Does he have any hope of resurrecting his career?

Southpaw’s strength literally and figuratively lies with Gyllenhaal. From the physical transformation he endured to mirror a prizefighter to the intonation and dialect he employed in his dialogue delivery – he completely immersed himself in the role. Forest Whitaker (Out of the Furnace) was also reliably effective in his supporting role as a trainer who helps Billy right the ship. However, although I enjoyed Southpaw, I didn’t absolutely love it. At first I couldn’t put my finger on it, but after mulling it over for a few days; I think the movie was almost too straightforward. Writer Kurt Sutter (Sons of Anarchy) needn’t have overcomplicated the story, but its resolution was a bit too tidy. Billy’s entire world went to shit. His wife, child, home, and livelihood were all ripped from him. The manner in which these conflicts were resolved was too streamlined. There were no plot twists, nothing unexpected.

I haven’t told you anything you didn’t already know if you’ve seen the trailer. Gyllenhaal’s commitment to the role was evidenced by his physical transformation, and the boxing scenes were frighteningly realistic. But how are we supposed to believe that a fighter who had been defeated so thoroughly could bounce back so quickly? A good movie, but not a great one. Grade: B+