‘Black Mass’ is a showcase of acting nobility

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Black Mass (2015)

Directed by Scott Cooper

In recent years, the race for Best Actor has been full of leading men all worthy of gold. So far, though, 2015 has seen few strong contenders. Ian McKellen in “Mr. Holmes.” Jake Gyllenhaal in “Southpaw,” maybe. But the tides have turned with “Black Mass.” Johnny Depp is almost a shoo-in for a Best Actor nod. But Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch and Kevin Bacon all give nomination-worthy performances in their supporting roles, too. What’s more, “Black Mass” also excels in almost every other facet of filmmaking.

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James “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp, covered seamlessly in prosthetics) began informing to the FBI in 1975, when his childhood friend, Agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), came to him for information on an enemy gang. Bulger and his partners (like those played by Rory Cochrane and Jesse Plemons) used their new immunity to commit crimes all across South Boston. Connolly used his new favor with the criminals to finance a fancy new house for him and his wife (Julianne Nicholson). Billie (Benedict Cumberbatch), Massachusetts state senator and Whitey’s brother, tries to keep his distance. But when FBI Special Agent Charles McGuire (Kevin Bacon) realizes Bulger has been giving them information that he couldn’t have known without insider knowledge, he puts pressure on Connolly to help him take Bulger down. Where will the shady agent’s allegiances lie?

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At this point in the year, I’d bet money that the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor comes from this “Black Mass” bunch. Edgerton gives the Southie accent his best effort in a starring turn. The crooked agent bit is given human characteristics by the recent director/star of “The Gift.” He shines here. Cumberbatch did a lot of research to match the mannerisms of the senator. In his smaller role, he excels. But that shouldn’t surprise you. And Bacon gives his best performance in years, reminding us of the old days. He’s more emotionally charged than we saw him in “Mystic River,” for instance. But this was always Johnny Depp’s movie. As the notorious criminal, Depp wore contacts to change the color of his eyes, put in some fake teeth, lost a few pounds, and I won’t mention the balding mess atop his head. He looks the part. But more so, he plays the role to near perfection. He’s equal parts doting family man and intimidating mobster. He’s a leading contender for Best Actor, with the best chances that I’ve seen all year. How could he have played the bumbling spy Mortdecai just eight months ago?

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But “Black Mass” isn’t just an unmatched showcase of talented actors. It’s an all-around great effort, with strong direction and an adapted script that could itself earn accolades. First-time screenwriter Mark Mallouk paired with Jez Butterworth (“Edge of Tomorrow,” “Spectre”) to adapt the 2001 book about the kingpin’s life in crime. The script throws out all of the classic gangster tropes in favor of something more timeless and real. This isn’t to be enjoyed only by those who can relate to the 1970s and 80s. The time plays less into the story than the inherent evil, an evil that lives today as much as ever. “Black Mass” is far from a stuffy period piece. Mallouk and Butterworth bring Bulger’s complex decades-long story to riveting life.

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“Black Mass” is one of the best movies of the year. Depp has what could be his best chance at winning an Oscar, with a truly remarkable performance that easily forgives all the questionable roles he’s ever had. But he has a strong supporting cast. Together they make up one of the best ensembles of the year. This one shouldn’t be missed.

8/10

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