Despite telling the story of one of the most notorious mobsters in history, Black Mass doesn’t quite have the originality or focus to stand up
with the best in the crime genre.
It’s hard not to compare it unfavorably with the likes of Goodfellas (Of which the film takes particular inspiration) or The Departed. The
latter, in fact, used the Whitey Bulger story as inspiration for Jack Nicholson’s character.
There’s no shame in failing to match legendary director Martin Scorsese, however, and Black Mass is still a very solid mob film in its own
What elevates Black Mass above the pack is a bravura performance from Johnny Depp as Bulger.
Working under transformative makeup and behind piercing contact lenses, Depp instills an incredible sense of imbalance and ruthlessness
to the man who would one day rise to the number two spot on the FBI’s most wanted list.
This is a frightening performance that matches Depp’s very best work. Bulger is incredibly creepy and downright weird, but Depp manages
to stop just short of crossing the line into comedic territory.
He also gets to work with a nice character arc.
Bulger begins as a small-time player in the Boston crime scene, before forming an unlikely alliance with the FBI and agent John Connolly
(An impressive performance from Joel Edgerton).
Bulger informs on his competition (Namely the Angiulo brothers of the New England Mafia Family), rocketing his Winter Hill gang to the top
of the pack.
By turning in his rivals, Bulger brilliantly gains power, while still remaining under the protection of Connolly and the FBI.
Bulger also happens to have a Massachusetts State Senate President for a brother. (Have you ever wanted to hear Benedict Cumberbatch
with a Boston accent?)
Concurrent with his rise to power, Bulger’s son is diagnosed with Reye syndrome and is taken off life support by his wife.
We can practically see the life draining out of Depp’s face as he transitions from a loving father to a full-on remorseless killer.
As Bulger’s terror spirals out of control, Connolly continues to look the other way and protect him in exchange for information; practically
becoming a part of the gang.
There is a particularly creepy scene where Connolly invites Bulger to his home and he proceeds to corner Connolly’s terrified wife.
Director Scott Cooper runs into a bit of trouble here as Black Mass enters into its final act. Pacing is a bit cumbersome at times, and an
embezzlement plot involving the World Jai Alai organization seems tacked-on only to remain faithful to the real life story.
It’s also disappointing that the film features a lengthy jump forward for its final scene. It would have been great to see at least a few scenes
of Depp as Bulger on the lam, especially considering a few subplots could have been excised to make room for it.
Black Mass is a good film, but not one that brings anything new to its genre. Depp’s performance, however, is not to be missed. It’s his best
work in years and a stunning reminder of just how good he can be at the top of his dramatic game.
* * *
(out of four)
Directed by: Scott Cooper
Written by: Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth
Starring: Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict
Cumberbatch, Dakota Johnson, Kevin Bacon
Cinematography by: Masanobu Takayanagi
Music by: Tom Holkenborg
Released: September 18, 2015; 122 Minutes