If even half of what is shown in Scott Cooper’s absorbing Whitey Bulger gangster saga, Black Mass, is true, then there is a special spot in Hell for Mr. Bulger when judgement day comes for him. He is truly the lowest of the low and to watch his reign of terror in Boston from 1975 to 1995, I frankly don’t see how he managed to stay alive that long, run things the way he did and even more baffling is why the FBI would enter into some kind of twisted alliance with Bulger’s Winter Hill Gang. Cooper has brought Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill’s book to life in nauseating detail. I guess I mean that as a compliment.
Black Mass, I doubt will be remembered as remembered as Good Fellas or Casino, but it is a powerhouse of acting by Johnny Depp as Bulger and Joel Edgerton as John Connolly, the corrupt FBI agent that actually convinced his superiors to offer Bulger a deal. “Work with the FBI and we will take care of the Mafia while protecting you, Whitey,” implores Connolly. Bulger did not like the competition of the Mafia, but other Irish gangs as well. The film does not focus on the other Irish gangs and spends most of the time with Bulger as he whacks anybody who crosses him. It did not matter; male or female. If he thinks you are against him, you are toast.
Depp makes it look easy as Bulger. We have all seen the trailers and they do his performance justice, but this is a performance best seen in its entirety. He is a cold, calculating, brutal monster and Depp captures all of that in some of his best work in years. Complete with a receding hair line, different colored eyes, gold tooth and a sneer that is almost reptilian, Depp slithers his way from scene to scene building his criminal enterprise with the helping hand of Connolly and the FBI. Depp shows why, when he is not making Pirate movies, he is one of Hollywood’s most charismatic and intense leading men. His performance is nothing short of electrifying and worthy of an Oscar nod, although it might be too dark of a role, even for the Academy. Still, this is the same Academy that gave Denzel Washington an Oscar to an equally evil character, Alonso Harris for Training Day, so time will tell.
Also, Oscar worthy is Joel Edgerton as Connolly. He is a sleaze, too but firmly believes what he is doing is right. He is not, of course, but Edgerton plays Connolly as a man who must convince himself everyday to dance with the Devil, so to speak. The ends justify the means, so to speak. His wife, Marianne knows what is going on and does not approve, at all, and rightfully so. Julianne Nicholson plays Marianne with grace and poise, but after a while, Marianne can only take so much. The remaining cast is well utilized, but there is not too much depth to most of the characters. This is a problem for Black Mass. When you have Kevin Bacon, Benedict Cumberbatch, Rory Cochrane, David Harbour, Adam Scott, Peter Sarsgaard, Juno Temple and Dakota Johnson all together in one film why not take your time and develop them? It can only give the story more weight and depth. Their performances are all solid and do Black Mass justice, but there is not much to their characters as represented in the film. They serve the plot well and their acting is first rate. So I guess on that level, the characters served their purpose for the film.
Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth have crafted a well written and polished script and director Cooper knows to get Depp all keyed up and to cut him loose. When you do that, Depp shines and shine he does. Junkie XL (Tom Holkenborg) provides a soft and low key score which compliments the film effectively. At times however, the structure of the film seems a bit too procedural and the pacing slows down a beat or two, but Black Mass will hold your attention, for the most part and keep you eyes glued on Depp and Edgerton. This is not a film for the squeamish or for kids. It is violent, bloody but compelling and intense. If anything can be said, be thankful Bulger is going to die in prison. He was a monstrous beast and is exactly where he needs to be. If you can handle the brutality of Black Mass, flaws aside, then this is one to check out.
Black Mass-***3/4 out of 5
Black Mass- Rated R for bloody violence and strong language
Black Mass- Run Time is 120 minutes