I was a little sceptical about Black Mass in the beginning because Johnny Depp has lost a lot of credibility in recent years due to his odd character choices. The first thing you notice about the poster is the makeover Depp undergoes for the role of Boston gangster Whitey Bulger, with the balding head, patchy grey hair and fake wrinkles — it looked good enough but also jarring, much like Leo DiCaprio in J. Edgar.
But then I saw the rest of the ridiculous cast — Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Kevin Bacon, Adam Scott, Corey Stoll, Dakota Johnson, Peter Saarsgard and Jesse “Meth Damon” Plemons from Breaking Bad — and I knew my fears were likely misplaced.
Black Mass is much more than just a return to form for Depp — it’s a fantastic crime drama that gripped me from the very first scene and continued to tighten its hold as Bulger grew in both status and ruthlessness.
Based on the non-fiction book of the same name, Black Mass follows Bulger’s rise from small-time mobster to one of the most notorious organised crime bosses in America during the 70s and 80s. How he gets there is what this film is all about; it’s a dark and sordid journey full of underhanded deals, double-crossing, and above all, loyalty. There are a lot of blurred lines in this world, one of which involves Whitey’s brother Billy (Cumberbatch), a member of the Massachusetts senate, with the other revolving around John Conolly (Edgerton), an FBI agent who grew up worshipping the badass Whitey back when they were kids.
In some ways, Black Mass is quite a conventional crime drama in that it focuses on a turbulent world and the characters that inhabit it, with plenty of brutality and violence to keep audiences at the edge of their seats. There’s no shortage of death or cursing, and there’s no black and white, only shades of grey.
The film’s director, Scott Cooper, who last helmed Out of the Furnace with Christian Bale, brings his gritty sensibilities to Black Mass. As with that film, the tone is dark, the mood grim, and the atmosphere intense. Despite there not being any major ups and downs or particularly climatic encounters, especially action-wise, Cooper nonetheless found a way to maintain my attention, and even as the film ends after a solid 122 minutes, I felt as though I could have easily watched another hour of that world and those characters.
The performance of Johnny Depp as Bulger has been highly touted and rightly so. It’s almost strange seeing him not being some sort of fantastical weirdo, but he pulls off the brooding, vicious villain so well that you soon forget about all the make up and prosthetics. Though he doesn’t show much emotion, Depp’s Bulger is genuinely terrifying and unpredictable. Most of the film’s tension comes directly from him.
While Depp may very well receive an Oscar nomination for his performance, another guy who probably deserves it just as much is Joel Edgerton. His portrayal of FBI agent Connolly is brilliant, and in many ways he is the true lead of the movie because Bulger doesn’t have much character development to work with. First Edgerton gives us The Gift, and now he rewards us with this performance. The talented dude is just a legend who continues to make all Aussies proud.
On the whole, Black Mass is a riveting true story fueled by a star-studded cast and outstanding performances all round, especially from Depp and Edgerton. It has all the elements of a great crime drama, and while it’s not on the level of the classics like The Godfather, Goodfellas, Heat, and so forth, it’s still an engrossing and captivating experience in its own right.
4 stars out of 5