Movie Review: “Black Mass” (Scott Cooper, USA 2015)

In 2011, when James “Whitey” Bulger was arrested, tried, and sentenced, I was in law school. As a result, I didn’t pay very close attention to the story. I remember Tony Kornheiser talking about it a few times but mostly just saying, “Wow–this is incredible! And now he’s so old! He looks like me!” and the like. But all I remember is that he had been on the run for a long time after having been a mobster and government informant. It’s possible that I heard more, but I find it strange to believe that I forgot what a bizarre story his was. He spent two decades growing his criminal empire in Boston while the FBI blocked all investigation of his activities because he was supposedly an informant of theirs, even though he apparently was essentially providing no information. His handler was falsifying information to make Bulger appear more important than he was in order to advance his own career while allowing Bulger to take over the city.

According to the film, the handler, John Connolly, doesn’t appear to have been on Bulger’s payroll or to have been placed in the FBI in order to execute this plan. So, the fundamental question that occurs to me is, “Why the hell did he protect Bulger like this?” This film, while it is supposedly about Bulger’s career, essentially attempts to answer that question. The answer that it gives is that Connolly, Bulger, and all of the other main players in this enterprise were children playing at a game of advancement and “success.” They never grew into men, remaining at heart kids on a playground even as they beat and murdered rivals and broke every law on the books. Continue reading

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TV Episode Review: “Breaking Bad” “Granite State” (05.15, 2013)

Written by Peter Gould (Previous Episodes: “A No-Rough-Stuff-Type Deal,” “Bit by a Dead Bee,” “Better Call Saul,” “Caballo sin Nombre,” “Kafkaesque,” “Half Measures,” “Problem Dog,” “Salud,” “Hazard Pay,” and “Blood Money”)

Directed by Peter Gould (Previous Episode: “Problem Dog”)

Back in “End Game” (04.12, 2011), a despondent Walter White sits at his backyard table, certain that Gus Fring means to kill him and unable to figure out a way to survive. He absent-mindedly spins a gun around on the table. It winds up pointing at him. He spins the gun again. It points at him again. He spins it again and it finally points at a potted plant, giving him the idea that he uses to escape certain death at Fring’s hands. At that moment what is left of Walter White dies and is replaced by the pure darkness that is Heisenberg. It’s perhaps the single most important scene in Breaking Bad‘s history: a very bad man is being told that he will be punished, understands it, and yet keeps pushing until he finds a way to delay that punishment. This show’s universe is a moral universe, and not just one where morality exists but one where “bad” behavior is punished (even if “good” behavior is not necessarily rewarded).

In “Granite State,” we see that one of the relative good guys, Saul Goodman (who may be a slimeball but is certainly not a villain the way many of our remaining characters are), is allowed to leave in order to live out his life free and clear of Heisenberg. He’s stuck in Nebraska (The horror!) and says it will take everything going right to end up managing a Cinnabon, but he’s not trapped inside Heisenberg’s web any longer.

And the reason that he’s no longer trapped is that Heisenberg is dead, replaced by the empty shell of a man that Walter White was clear back in the pilot. He’s trying to play the part of Heisenberg still, but he can’t do it. He tries to intimidate Saul the exact same way he has done previously, and yet even the cowardly Saul realizes he has nothing to fear when Walt breaks down into a coughing fit. When he ends up in a cabin in New Hampshire, hiding from a nationwide manhunt that the disappearer warns him means he will be caught if he its seen at all, even putting on Heisenberg’s black hat does not give him the strength to walk to the nearest town in order to act out a typically hubristic Heisenberg scheme. The cancer causing him to weaken is obviously part of the issue (The disappearer did say it was eight miles to the town, trudging through snow in the cold.), but there’s also the simple fact that Walter White is a sad, risk-averse man who isn’t willing to risk getting caught so easily. Heisenberg was always convinced of his own ability to do anything he wished and didn’t stop even when prudence should tell him to do so, and Walt’s inability to make the journey to the nearest town even with the hat is a sure sign that Heisenberg is no longer here.

Walt’s New Hampshire adventure also serves to tell Walt that the world no longer has any use for him. While on the surface his pained cabin experience appears to be just a man starved for contact, he also can’t send money to his family, can’t order hits on Jack and his crew, has no Jesse to boss around, can’t contact Skyler, and his son says point-blank, “I don’t want anything from you!” Heisenberg is dead, and Walter White has been rendered completely useless. He’s as impotent as he was for that handjob back in the pilot.

Meanwhile, the neo-Nazis have taken over the show and in so doing deconstructed it. The criminality on this show has often been glamorous and “cool” in much the same way that violence and criminality often is in media. There have been Heisenberg’s bad guy catch phrases (“I am the one who knocks!”), the fancy cars, Lydia’s legs, and always cunning, elegant plans from Walter White. Todd and the neo-Nazis aren’t glamorous. They’re down and dirty pragmatic criminals, and they’re all the more dangerous because of that, and if we didn’t know that before, we certainly do after the murder of Andrea, which is perhaps the darkest moment in this show’s history. It’s not a dramatic moment like when Gus killed Victor or Jesse killed Gale. It’s not a major action sequence like Hank killing the twins or the neo-Nazis killing Gomez. Instead, they just make sure Jesse can see it as Todd lures Andrea outside and calmly puts a bullet through her head and leaves her dead on her own front porch, probably to be found by the little boy Heisenberg decided to poison back when the gun finally pointed away from him.

Meanwhile, we finally got a good example of the cold cruelty of which Lydia is capable, as she nearly broke off her partnership with Todd in anger for Todd having decided to scare Skyler into submission instead of simply killing her, saying, “We’re not Western Union, Todd. We can’t settle for you sending messages.” That scene also was loaded with some brilliant detail emphasizing Todd’s infatuation with Lydia (Todd is drinking tea. He’s disappointed that she wants to sit facing opposite directions. He won’t actually keep from looking at her.) and yet another instance of Lydia mentioning Stevia. It seems clear to me that the ricin is going to replace her Stevia, or else they have paid considerably for placement on the show.

Finally recognizing the futility of his own continued existence, Walt decides to turn himself in, but then he discovers a reason to live, which is of course an attack on his pride. The biggest driving force in Walt’s life as he has cut a swath of destruction through the world has been his pride, so of course it is only a blow to that pride that could bring him back to Albuquerque. The interesting part is who delivers that blow, as it is none other than Gretchen and Elliott Schwartz, his ex-partners who bought him out of a multi-billion dollar company back when it was a startup after a rude ending to Walt’s romantic relationship with Gretchen that has never been fully explained on the show but surely has something to do with his pride again. Hearing them claim that his only contribution to their company was the name apparently* sets Walt off, and he is gone before the federal agents arrive to look for him, making one wonder if he has some plan to attack the Schwartzes and/or Gray Matter in the end. Meanwhile, Gretchen Schwartz, the person who always seemed to understand Walt more than anyone (except maybe for Mike), explains the duality of Walter White and Heisenberg but claims that Walt is clearly gone while we can see that Heisenberg has died and left behind the same Walter White that she knew.

*They also talk about the blue meth being seen throughout the southwest and in Europe, so it’s possible that Walt is reacting instead to the fact that his meth is being peddled without him. Or he could be reacting to Gretchen’s description of him as “the sweet, kind, brilliant man we once knew.” It seems more likely to me that it’s their belittling his contribution to their company, but it’s not impossible that it’s one of those other things.

Peter Gould didn’t distinguish himself as a director in his previous episode (and on this show, that’s praise), and he doesn’t this time either. He makes nice use of some great high contrast lighting in the bar and otherwise composes his shots very smartly, but there isn’t anything that stands out from what Breaking Bad usually does. It doesn’t do him any favors to follow up the incomparable Michelle MacLaren and Rian Johnson, but he holds his own.

Overall, this was yet another amazing episode of Breaking Bad that continued moving chess pieces but left the finale open. It cannot be easy to set up a show like this and not make the finale obvious, but Gilligan and company have done it.

Notes

  • This show has always had more than its share of surprises, but I don’t think I’ve ever been more surprised than I was when it was Saul stepping out of the van at the beginning.
  • From what we hear on the Charlie Rose Show, it’s clear that Walt’s crimes have become public knowledge–even the name Heisenberg and the color of his meth are mentioned.
  • Gretchen and Elliott must be bored as hell during that “interview.” Not much back and forth there!
  • Maybe Jesse will be hidden underground when Walt shows up with the machine gun, so that Walt inadvertently saves him. The fact that Jesse has survived this long makes me think he’s making it out of the finale.
  • Jesse Plemons deserves more attention than he gets for the job he does with Todd. Look at the little smirk he gets at Jesse mentioning his killing Drew Sharp–it’s a kid enjoying his brush with fame at his name being mentioned on TV and he doesn’t care at all that it’s for killing an innocent kid.

TV Episode Review: “Breaking Bad” “Ozymandias” (05.14, 2013)

Written by Moira Walley-Beckett (Previous Episodes: “Breakage,” “Over,” “Más,” “Fly,” “Bullet Points,” “Bug,” “End Times,” and “Gliding over All”)

Directed by Rian Johnson (Previous Episodes: “Fly” and “Fifty-One”)

Back when I reviewed the first episode of this half-season, “Blood Money,” I wrote that, “My guess is that [Heisenberg] is able to buy enough time from Hank to get to use the disappearer but doesn’t kill Hank, leaving the case hanging over Walt as he escapes. However, Lydia is unhappy about the quality she is getting and forces Jesse into the business. Walt somehow finds out about Jesse’s position and goes back to save Jesse, hoping that it will be a final act of redemption.” As has been the case many times in this show’s history, it did end up where I thought it was obvious that it would, but the narrative took surprising twists and turns at every opportunity before getting there. Just as an example, we knew that Walt would have to get Gus out of the way back in season four and I knew it would require him to embrace the evil in himself somehow to do it, but I didn’t expect that embrace to allow him to manipulate Jesse into helping him, let alone the specifics of his poisoning of Brock and so on. This time, I was right that he was going to end up at the disappearer and that Jesse would be forced back into cooking, but I got everything that led to that state of affairs wrong.

This episode, unsurprisingly, opens with a teaser set in a different time, a teaser that is imbued with tension because we are all waiting for the outcome of the shootout from the last episode. Cleverly, the teaser actually foreshadows later events with Holly by showing us a conversation between Walt and Skyler from back when Walt first cooked with Jesse where they decide the girl’s name. It’s an interesting technique, because it should make it obvious that something is going to happen with Holly later but because we don’t really care about this conversation while we’re waiting to find out who exactly dies in the shootout, it’s not really obvious. As with all of these flashbacks, it also reminds us just how much things have changed, with the dumbass meth-head Jesse refusing to listen to the nerdy science teacher explaining the meth production process before we cut to the end of the shootout and watch hardened criminal Walt plead for Hank’s life and then Heisenberg order a sniveling Jesse’s death.

At the scene of the shootout, we see Walt pleading for Hank’s life, appealing to the idea that Hank is “family” and refusing to admit, as Hank says, that Jack has already made up his mind. It looks like the death of Heisenberg, as it is Walter White who pleads (unsurprisingly, unsuccessfully) for Hank, thinking that he has Heisenberg’s manipulative powers. However, Heisenberg returns to order Jesse Pinkman’s death, finding Jesse hiding underneath a car, just after a handshake agreement where we see Jack’s swastika tattoo featured prominently.

Then, Todd interrupts, claiming that they just want to find out what Jesse told the DEA before they kill him, though at least I immediately thought that he was taking Jesse to help cook. Jack may be happy with the quality he’s getting from Todd, but Todd isn’t—he knows what Heisenberg produced and thinks that Jesse can help him reach that level. He may be a psychopath, but he also has a level of professional pride and studiousness about his cooking that only Heisenberg and Gale have ever shared. Heisenberg, in a final act of anger toward the teenaged burnout he had long since broken, finally lets loose the secret that he watched Jane die (Though he omits the detail that he actually turned Jane onto her back, without which she would not have asphyxiated.) and then watches his former partner being taken away by the neo-Nazis.

One of the clear mysteries of the last season has been why Walt is apparently separated from his family, since he’s performing the bacon ritual without Skyler way back at the start of the season in “Live Free or Die.” I had been wondering whether there was anything that Walt could do at this point that would be a bridge too far for Skyler and drive her away, and the only even possible answer I could come up with was for him to kill Marie in order to keep her quiet, since she knows about Jesse at this point. It turns out what finally turned her against Walt wasn’t Walt or even Heisenberg but Walter Jr., who turns her against her husband by saying, “If this is all true and you knew about it, then you’re as bad as him.” She acts like it’s the revelation that Walt killed Hank that sets her off, but she surely would not have reacted by fighting him off before hearing her son say that.

Then we see Jesse’s fate. In a harrowing and beautifully-shot sequence, Todd drags a beaten and bloodied Jesse out of a cell in the ground into his lab and chains him to the ceiling with a picture of Brock and Andrea prominently displayed as a constant warning (surely a warning that carries even more weight from neo-Nazis given their race) then puts on one of the yellow suits we have seen so often and says, “Let’s cook.” Jesse is trapped helping Todd, and Todd does not know mercy. Todd would also surely be willing to kill Jesse as soon as he is no longer providing any value, and Jesse knows how sick Todd is from watching him kill Drew Sharp. In fact, Jesse saw the danger in Todd before anyone else, and we probably should have known then that Jesse’s fate was to end up trapped under Todd’s heel.

Walt then takes Holly and calls back to scare Skyler into submission as Heisenberg, giving her a terrifying speech about the dangers of crossing him even as tears run down his face at the loss of his family and perhaps even Hank’s death. Or perhaps he is mourning the loss of Heisenberg. The man who returns to Albuquerque in the future is Walter White, not Heisenberg, and this moment may have been the end of Heisenberg.

With the police in his house, his son now aware of his actions, probably every living member of his family now talking to the police, and Jesse chained up and forced to help Todd cook, he runs to the disappearer, and leaves town. With two episodes left, Heisenberg’s empire that he prides himself on telling Skyler that he built remains but nothing else he sought does. His real son and his wife have turned against him and he has turned away his own chosen surrogate.

Rian Johnson, the greatest film director working today, returns for his third episode of the series, and it is again a wonder to behold. Michelle MacLaren’s direction is so brilliant that I often say that a film would be proud to have shots that she and Michael Slovis get on this show, but Johnson’s appearances are a reminder of how much of a gap exists between even the best television director and a great film director: in addition to big things like the beautiful night-time lighting at the fire station, he imbues everything with brilliant details like the repeated use of zoom in otherwise static scenes and a simple, static shot of the empty street after Walt has driven away with Holly before returning to Skyler’s collapse. There are so many of these details that one could write an entire review just naming them, so I won’t spend too long, but the episode is perhaps the most beautiful in this show’s history, which is high praise indeed.

Overall, this episode is an excellent and harrowing climax to this point that sets up a reasonably clear finale but leaves enough questions unanswered that we can’t know everything to expect. It’s Breaking Bad at its finest yet again.

Notes

  • Walt has to be coming back to get Jesse out in a final act of “redemption,” I feel fairly certain. But it honestly seems a little strange at this point for him even to discover what’s going on with Jesse.
  • It was nice to see a Johnson regular, Noah Segan (who appeared as Dode in Brick [USA 2005] and Kid Blue in Looper [USA/China 2012]), make a small appearance as the fireman who finds Holly.
  • Who painted “Heisenberg” on the wall? It’s starting to feel like it’s going to be someone closer to home rather than just some random tweeker.
  • Where are Skyler, Walter Jr., and Holly when Walt returns to town?
  • I had a new thought about the ricin—maybe it’s actually for himself. I could see Walt seeking redemption by first saving Jesse with the machine gun and then going to Skyler for forgiveness having already taken the ricin so that she cannot turn him in.
  • Once again, given more to do, R.J. Mitte steps up. He was great in this episode, as were Anna Gunn, Jesse Plemons, and Bryan Cranston.
  • If we want to call season 5b its own season, it is surely the greatest season of television in history.

Update: I had already had the review up for a bit when I realized that I wrote the part about Walt’s phone call as though it were totally credulous and just completely forgot to say anything about the real motivation. The way he was drawing attention to her lack of knowledge and pretending to believe that the police weren’t there, and Skyler’s reaction when he drew attention to her lack of knowledge, suggest that he was actually trying to help Skyler out of the mess by making sure that the police knew it was “Me–me alone!” It wouldn’t shot me if there is at least some reality in what he is saying (Walt has often mixed truth in with his lies.) anyway, but scaring Skyler into submission is only the ostensible motive, not the real one. It’s a rare moment of humanity for Walt these days, and one of the greatest moments ever for Cranston, which is about the highest praise a moment of acting can receive.