Last Friday I saw Black Mass and Sicario at the AMC Loews Lincoln Square multiplex here in New York. I don’t necessarily recommend seeing two films back-to-back, especially on four hours’ sleep, but they’d just opened that day and I was really anxious to see them. As it turned out, I stayed wide awake through both, despite the lack of sleep. These films come on strong, with a level of tension throughout and a threat of violence at any moment that definitely got my attention. I feel like I should get combat pay for seeing them both together. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
In Black Mass, Johnny Depp plays James “Whitey” Bulger, leader of the Winter Hill Gang in South Boston in the mid-1970s. Besides being a dead-eyed killer, Bulger was also an FBI informant in exchange for being allowed to conduct his criminal activities unimpeded. This character is unlike any other I’ve seen Depp portray before. It’s the kind of change-up that gets attention, and is being called a return to form for Depp, whose recent films haven’t done so well. Though he didn’t noticably gain weight or rely on prosthetics — other than a skull cap (or actual shaved head) that renders him practically bald on top — the change in his appearance is extreme, but I suspect this has as much to do with performance as it does with makeup. Depp’s Whitey Bulger is a tightly wrapped, sociopathic reptile, and there’s nothing remotely charming about him. Everything he says or does is threatening in one way or another.
Whitey Bulger is the kind of flashy role that can result in award nominations, but Joel Edgerton’s performance as John Connelly, the FBI agent who makes a deal with Bulger and becomes complicit in his crimes, is just as strong (Edgerton also wrote, directed, and stars in The Gift, a deeply unsettling thriller released earlier this year). Connelly was raised in South Boston and was boyhood friends with Bulger and his younger brother, William, a Boston senator, played by Benedict Cumberbatch in a role I wish had been developed more.
Black Mass is on a larger scale than director Scott Cooper’s previous films, which include the terrific Crazy Heart (2009), with Jeff Bridges in an Oscar-winning performance, and the less successful Out of the Furnace (2013). Here he has a large cast of excellent actors, including Kevin Bacon, Jesse Plemmons (from Friday Night Lights and Breaking Bad), Corey Stoll, Peter Sarsgaard, Rory Cochran, David Harbour, Adam Scott, Julianne Nicholson, and Sienna Miller. This is a film in which even the smallest parts feel totally authentic. Black Mass plays at times like a cross between Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990) and Sidney Lumet’s Prince of the City (1981). The gangster life of Bulger and his cohorts echoes Goodfellas, while scenes of FBI agents screaming at each other or falling apart as their misdeeds become known feels like Prince of the City. That’s not a criticism. These are good films to share DNA with; and besides, Black Mass is its own thing.
At the end of the day, Sicario is the film I’d want to see again. Directed by Denis Villeneuve (Incendies – 2010 and Prisoners – 2013), with stellar cinematography by Roger Deakins, it feels less familiar than Black Mass, even though plenty of films and TV shows have dealt with drug traffic across the U.S./Mexico border — most notably Steven Soderbergh’s epic Traffic (2000). The three leads here are very strong. Emily Blunt plays Kate Macer, a somewhat idealistic FBI agent; Josh Brolin is Matt Graver, who recruits Kate for his team, though his official affiliation (CIA?) and mission are hazy at best; Benicio Del Toro is Alejandro, and who knows what the hell he is, except maybe the dark heart of the story. Ostensibly, they’re after the head of a particularly vicious drug cartel, but Kate is given virtually no information at the outset, and we go right in with her. Most of the film is seen from Kate’s point of view, though there are some significant exceptions.
One of the strengths of Sicario is its music, which is by the Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson. The degree to which it affects the mood and tone, and creates an ominous feeling that things can go violently sideways at any moment, can’t be overestimated. The music is often jagged, like a storm about to break. Here’s a clip of soundtrack samples from the film that gives a good sense of this.
There’s always the threat of violence in both Black Mass and Sicario. When it comes, there’s nothing exciting or thrilling about it (okay, maybe a little); it’s mostly quick and ugly. The following scene on a bridge between Mexico and the United States shows how the film cranks up the tension and dread. The clip takes us to the edge, just before things blow up.
Sicario is not a feel-good movie. It paints as hopeless a picture of the “war on drugs” as you’re likely to see. Despite that, there’s a humanity beneath the surface, even in the midst of the most heartless actions. – Ted Hicks
Note: All of the films referenced, with the exceptions of Black Mass and Sicario, are available for streaming on Amazon and rental from Netflix. Joel Edgerton’s The Gift — which you really should see if you haven’t — will be released on home video this October 27.