8 out of 10
Black Mass Cast:
Johnny Depp as Whitey Bulger
Directed by Scott Cooper
For over two decades, James “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp) was able to run a South Boston criminal empire that involved drugs, extortion and even murder due to his affiliation with FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), a childhood friend who helped take down Bulger’s competition with information fed to him by the crime lord.
Possibly the biggest hurdle faced by Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart) with his third feature and first film based on real events is that he’s treading on fairly sacred ground by making a gangster movie with the onus of films like The Godfather and Goodfellas hanging over every single scene.
Black Mass is more than just a lot of actors playing gangsters and doing their best South Boston accents, although it takes its sweet time getting to the point where it doesn’t just feel like “Goodfellas with Boston accents.”
The main reason why it transcends that misnomer is that Cooper has Johnny Depp giving possibly the best performance of his career, an absolutely mesmerizing portrayal of Boston’s “Whitey” Bulger that’s more than just make-up and hair to make him look like the notorious criminal. Some might note how similar Depp looks to Jack Nicholson in the role, which is ironic being that Nicholson based his character in Martin Scorsese’s The Departed on Bulger.
Bulger’s story is a tantalizing one, because it’s essentially about someone who quite literally almost got away with murder. The fact that one of Boston’s most notorious criminals was the brother of one of the state’s most beloved senators is astounding enough, but the fact he was able to have a relationship with the FBI through his childhood friend John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) without any of his crew finding out is also quite amazing. Most of Black Mass shifts between Bulger doing his business, which often requires killing anyone who challenges his authority or he feels he can’t trust, and Connolly, as he tries to convince his superiors that having Bulger as an asset is worth the amount of bodies piling up at his hands.
As one might expect, the film is quite violent and it’s filled with F-bombs, but both those things have lost some of their shock value only because we’ve become so numbed to this sort of thing from some of the movies mentioned above. And comparisons to those other movies are almost impossible to avoid as well. Even one of the movie’s best scenes when Whitey is having dinner with Connolly and his boss John Morris (played by the extremely underrated David Harbour) in which Whitey seems ready to lose his ever-present cool is reminiscent of Joe Pesci’s “You think I’m funny” scene from Goodfellas.
Needless to say, there are a lot of characters in this story and while much of the focus is on Bulger and Connolly, some of the film’s best moments involve Julianne Nicholson as Connolly’s wife Marianne, who realizes his childhood relationship with Bulger is affecting his ability to do his job right. There’s one scene between her and Bulger that will send a chill down your spine because it confirms how scary Depp is in that role. And that’s the thing. We’ve gotten so used to Johnny Depp doing obnoxiously over-the-top comic characters that when he plays a character as deadly serious as Bulger is, we quickly forget we’re watching Depp at all. The thought that Cooper might direct another veteran actor to an Oscar proves him to be no fluke, and that alone allows us to forgive that much of Black Mass feels like Cooper is trying to do his best Scorsese impression.
Benedict Cumberbatch is another standout as Bulger’s brother, who has many scenes with Depp and Edgerton, although he isn’t as involved with the “alliance” created between their characters. But then you have a couple of smaller roles like Peter Sarsgaard as an odd coked-up associate of Bulger’s and “Breaking Bad’s” Jesse Plemons, who is almost unrecognizable as he narrates the opening scenes. Plemons plays a young man taken under Bulger’s wing, but he doesn’t have nearly as big a role in the film as you might think from the opening moments.
Playing Connolly’s FBI colleagues doesn’t give Kevin Bacon and Adam Scott a lot to do and their scenes tend to drag, mainly since they’re the few scenes without Depp. But then Corey Stoll shows up midway through the film as a new Boston prosecutor who immediately catches onto Connolly’s questionable practices while investigating Bulger himself, and that’s where things pick up.
Screenwriters Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth do a brilliant job curating all the information that’s known about Bulger into a tightly-woven story that never feels bloated, although there are some missed opportunities like making more out of White’s relationship with his wife (Dakota Johnson), especially after their son falls into a coma, something that’s never mentioned again. That moment was the only chance to give Bulger some humanity and make the audience feel any sort of empathy with him, but it quickly passes.
As cautiously skeptical I was of Black Mass ever finding its own identity outside the shadow of the great Scorsese, all the varying parts of this equation do eventually start coming together into something that’s not only worthwhile but quite memorable.
The Bottom Line:
It may take a good hour or more for Black Mass to find its footing and stand out among the many great gangster films that came before it, but there’s little question that Depp’s unforgettable performance is the reason to watch the movie and fans of the crime genre will easily forgive any similarities to past films because of it.