That Gift is Poison. Movie Reviews: ‘Black Mass’ and ‘The Gift’

Black Mass

I love stories that deal with loyalty at their core, because I think it’s one of the most interesting human values: one of the most admirable, one of the easiest to drop in a pinch, one that becomes almost puzzling when carried through to its logical limit.

In Black Mass, Johnny Depp plays gangster James “Whitey” Bulger, who ran the Winter Hill Gang on the streets of South Boston for decades, with the FBI as his (first-unwitting, then-entrapped) allies. Depp’s Bulger is a strange, untouchable, ruthless man with a soft heart only for little old ladies and small children, and Depp plays him with a coldly calculating air. Beneath layers of makeup, including rather inexplicable eyeliner that seems left over from Captain Jack Sparrow, one never gets the sense that they know Depp’s version of Bulger, but because he is a legend, a con man, it didn’t get in the way of my enjoying the movie. Besides, its heart, for me, is Joel Edgerton as Bulger’s childhood friend-turned-FBI-agent James Connolly.

black-mass-edgertonJoel Edgerton as James Connolly

black_mass_posterHow can a man in mom-jeans do so many terrible things?

When they were kids on the tough streets of Southie, Bulger protected Connolly, and Connolly, with admirable loyalty, never forgot his debt. There’s a joke in the movie about how kids from Southie either grow up to become gangsters or cops, and Bulger and Connolly follow this split. Agent Connolly approaches a fresh-out-of-prison Bulger and proposes a plan: that if Bulger and his men can inform on the Mafia inching onto their turf, the Irish gangsters will be protected. Immune.

blackmassheaderIn both of these movies, dinner parties are a bad idea

Connolly doesn’t exactly create a monster in Bulger—the monster was always there—but he certainly ensures that Bulger has free rein to steal, gamble, murder, deal cocaine, and engage in a host of other things one would think an FBI agent might feel compelled to discourage. In the process, Connolly—gaining wealth and clout, buying fancy shoes, getting manicures– makes a monster of himself.

blacmass

Stop it with the manicures. Your wife notices. Be a man

The fascinating twist? Connolly’s undying, stupidly stubborn, deeply admirable loyalty to Bulger. Even when Connolly’s found out, even when he faces jail time, he refuses to point the finger at the man who saved him as a kid – even if that man, as an adult, sold him down the river.

The real James Connolly is serving time even today for failing to name Bulger for his crimes. It seems, on one hand, idiotic, given Bulger’s lack of real loyalty in return. And yet, I won’t lie: there’s something to admire in that kind of fidelity. Either Connolly believes that Bulger has been loyal to him as well, or else he, not caring, sticks to his own promise to the point that he will pay for it, not just once, but with his whole life.
—-

The Gift
Thrillers and horror movies abound, but rarely do they come with the kind of Hitchcockian/Kubrickian smarts as does The Gift, a deceptively simple film starring Jason Bateman, Rebecca Hall, and Joel Edgerton (who also wrote and directed).

the giftI would like to buy that for you

Simon (played by Jason Bateman) and Robyn (the gorgeous Rebecca Hall), new transplants to L.A., run into a former classmate of Simon’s while out shopping. Simon claims to barely remember “Gordo,” but Gordo clearly remembers him very well. Soon after, the couple returns home to find a gift left on their doorstep: a nice bottle of wine, signed by Gordo and with his trademark happy-face. Thing is, they hadn’t told Gordo where they live.

The gifts keep coming, Gordo keeps dropping by, and things start getting weird. It should be noted that the German word gift means “poison,” and as Gordo’s motives seem more suspect, this is exactly what he leaves time and again at Simon and Robyn’s door.

The atmosphere is perfectly creepy and unnerving, with the domestic sphere turned into one of terror, much as in Curtis Hanson’s The Hand That Rocks the Cradle. Simon convinces Robyn that her fears of Gordo are all in her head—he brings up some past problems with depression and addiction to cow her—but she feels certain that she is not alone during the day while she showers and sips tea and walks around her house which is made almost entirely of windows. You know what they say about people who live in glass houses—so when Simon writes a taunting note on the fridge white-board about Gordo, you know that Gordo is going to see it, you just don’t know where or when.

There are brilliant homages in this film, quick enough you almost can’t catch them: I was trying my hardest and caught three within five minutes. When Simon and Robyn talk to Gordo about his still-murky past, and you catch his whiff of a desire for revenge, it calls up Stephen King’s Carrie; seconds later Robyn is showering (Psycho) and then stirring a big, boiling pot on the stove (Fatal Attraction). Bam, bam, bam, one after the other, an almost-subconscious cluing into the dark underside of this love triangle—and those are only the ones that I, not an expert on thrillers, caught, so I’d love to hear more from someone better versed in the genre. I will say that the subtle clues in the film are perfect: in the dinner party scene, listen for the dog. I was excited that I caught it. I nudged my husband and hissed, “The dog! Do you hear the dog?!” And seconds later something big happened that made us jump in our seats. Him more than me, of course, because I heard the dog.

As the film goes on, you find yourself wondering who the screwed-up one is here: Robyn, or Gordo, or Simon. In what could be a brilliant re-imagining of The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, the ending leaves Simon not looking like a hero but in a very complicated position, and Gordo may get the last laugh. The final seconds are goosebump-inducing and a feat of plot and character, and put Joel Edgerton on my personal map as a talent to watch closely in the future. I wish I’d gotten this review up early enough to encourage my seven loyal blog readers to see The Gift in theaters, but I think it’ll do its job just as well on a home TV. I highly recommend it.

The Books I Have Loved [But Not Written About]

“If you wanna hear God laugh, try announcing your plans.” -Al Swearengen, ‘Deadwood’

I’ve had such (literary) plans! — but life, kids, a move, work, have blown them out of the water.

But lest you think your devoted moderator of the Military Spouse Book Review has completely lost her edge, descending into a spiral of ‘Keeping Up with the Kardashians’ and drinking Zima while giving herself wonky late-night pedicures that must be erased come morning, rest assured — that is not the case.

I am reading, as ever, and in fact my list is so long that it’s tangling me up a bit. When you are reading a lot of very good stuff, you have to think a while before you can write about it. I am paralyzed by my own riches, like a British explorer trudging through the desert, weighed down by ancient treasure but unwilling to lighten the load.

Let me share some of this wonderful stuff I’ve been reading:

The Arranged Marriage by Jehanne Dubrow. Any military spouse/writer, or longtime reader of this blog, will probably recognize Jehanne’s name — she’s the author of the fantastic poetry collection Stateside, a Navy wife, and a professor at Washington College. Her most recent collection, though slim (as poetry collections tend to be), is worthy of a slow reading and is absolutely riveting. I have been trying to organize my thoughts around it. In typical Dubrow style, many of the poems are homages to other poems, poets, or ideas, and my poor fiction writer’s brain, all pulpy and running on adrenaline, must grapple with such rich and beautiful things.

arranged marriage

And now, let me tantalize you with some gorgeous lines:

Sometimes a woman leaves so quickly she cannot pack.

and

She could stare the whorl from fingertips. Cut him with her eyes.

[Are you kidding me. That is amazing. -Editor]

&

The room, a dark idea of rooms. And then the

day, a gleaming penknife drawn across the

floor.

—-

I’m also reading Love Me Anyway by Tiffany Hawk, another mil spouse/novelist. My mom and I are doing a buddy read, which is terrific fun, but it’s taking forever. Hawk, a former flight attendant herself, tells the tale of two young flight attendants: Emily, who took the job to run from something (an awful husband) and KC, who’s running desperately toward something — her wayward, long-absent father. Hawk is a fantastic storyteller in the old tradition, building, building a multilayered story that brings you ever closer to these women and rooting more intensely for their success with every page. I can’t wait to write about this book and give you my mom’s take on it, too.

lovemeanyway

—-

I recently finished A Hard and Heavy Thing by Matthew Hefti, former EOD tech-turned-novelist-turned-law-student. What can’t Matthew Hefti do? I don’t even know. But I’ll tell you what he can do: write a novel. A Hard and Heavy Thing is the story of Nick and Levi, two young men who enlist in the Army after 9/11 (and later the National Guard), with devastating consequences. In a fascinating twist, the novel is “written” from Levi to Nick, as an apology, a “love letter,” a suicide note, a personal defense. This book’s out in January so I will be writing more about it then. You can pre-order on Amazon.

hardandheavy

—-

Speaking of pre-ordering, Taylor Brown’s Fallen Land, due out Jan. 12th, is one of my favorite books of the year. The tale of a horse thief and a young woman on the run from bounty hunters, Fallen Land is set at the end of the Civil War, amidst the devastation of Sherman’s March to the Sea. It’s action-packed, beautifully written, full of heart and excitement. Fans of Cold Mountain and Cormac McCarthy would do well to order this on Amazon now!

fallenland

—-

On my to-read shelf: so many books. Brian Turner’s My Life as a Foreign Country. Benjamin Busch’s Dust to Dust. Adrian Bonenberger’s Afghan Post. Margaret Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last. Most currently riveting: Claire Vaye Watkins’s Gold Fame Citrus, a post-apocalyptic tale set in water-drained southern California, where the “Mojavs” have been ghettoized, forbidden to emigrate to greener climes. I could pore through this book in one night, but I have discipline, and so I am — like the poor Mojavs — rationing myself. So far, I’m absolutely loving the characters of Luz and Ray (a very well-written veteran) and the little girl, Ig, whom they rescue from a bad situation — but in an illegal fashion that may cause them a heap of trouble. Can’t recommend this book enough!

goldfamecitrus

—-

Last of all, on its way to me now — Icarian Flux, another poetry collection by veteran Colin Halloran. This one’s gotten high praise and Halloran is an accomplished poet, so I cannot wait for this to arrive on my doorstep.

icarian flux