Director: Scott Cooper
Starring: Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dakota Johnson, Kevin Bacon
Run Time: 2 hrs. 2 mins.
Since its release, Black Mass has been receiving moderate-to-good reviews at best; mostly raves and praises for Johnny Depp's performance as James "Whitey" Bulger, and for the strong supporting cast, but not for the choice of story material and for what they displayed of Bulger's life. I, on the other hand, found the movie to be very entertaining, and structurally a fantastic and informative motion picture that wisely took its time and kept a taut yet leisurely pace to its narrative.
Black Mass, based on the book by the same name from authors Dick Lehr and Gerard O'Neill, is a concrete example of strong direction and superb acting. Depp's performance is so overwhelmingly welcome in the wake of the questionable choices he's made in roles over the past handful of years that it almost feels like a comeback of sorts, hearkening back to his more subdued performances in the 90s (with a special note to his part in Donnie Brasco). Depp gets lost deep into his performance as the notorious real-life gangster, with his steely, silver-eyed gaze piercing straight in the souls of his enemies and the audience alike. A lot of that description and praise I gave sounds cliche as hell, and I know it, but it's the damned truth; every closeup of Depp was like a clinic in how to make a viewer squirm in their seat from confident, "I-own-your-ass" eye contact alone.
The movie spans from the late-70s to mid-80s when "Whitey" Bulger, brother to Massachusetts senator Billy Bulger, sparked an "alliance" with his childhood friend working for the FBI, agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton). Connolly, who effectively persuaded his superiors to allow the "alliance", enlisted Bulger to assist in taking down a rival Italian gang invading Bulger's turf in South Boston. Over the course of time, we not only witness Bulger's collaboration of sorts as an "informant" for the bureau (all while continuing his evil, murderous gangster ways under the radar), but we also see Connolly's conflict as both a friend of a notorious gangster, and an agent maintaining his job while avoiding supervisor suspicions as to his apparent protection of his friend.
Black Mass is predictable in the ways of storytelling, adhering to a narrative of a downward spiral of multiple characters over a period of time, starting from a position of absolute power ultimately leading to an absolute downfall. What isn't as predictable (and this resides on your knowledge of the life and events of "Whitey" Bulger) are the character moments, the dramatic developments of the personal life of Bulger. For the majority of the first act, we are led through the inner family workings of the man, with moments that would lead to an emotional catharsis of sorts that take us through the events that would lead to his eventual capture in 2011.
Director Scott Cooper's slow-burn mentality proves to be a good format for actors to sharpen their skills. Depp steals every scene he's in, even when the other actors and actresses are acting their asses off. He commands every word of dialogue with confidence and decades of skill, often making me forget that it was him and not the real "Whitey" Bulger. He's that good. The supporting cast is pretty damn good as well, especially Edgerton who has added yet another staple to a continuing list of great roles in a short period of time.
Black Mass is violent and bloody at times, and is also momentarily humorous, but in the end is a dead serious example of harsh Mafia tactics and a no-nonsense approach to being an apparent emotionless gangster. The film could draw comparisons to Goodfellas and some better Martin Scorcese films, but the film shouldn't unfairly be compared to the heydays of De Niro and Pesci. Depp and Cooper portray Bulger as the real life man that very well could have inspired many gangster movie characters from the 80s and 90s or influenced similar stories of power and corruption. Where Black Mass may not ultimately have the charm and effect as another Boston gangster film, the Oscar-winning The Departed, it does act as a great biopic about a time in the life of a very, very dangerous human being who is also...a human being like you and me. He just has the eyes of a snake.
Yes, the film is another role for Depp to act under makeup, but he isn't hidden. Instead, the look lends a particular creepiness to his performance, allowing him to more effectively delve deeper into the role, in what is sure to become YET ANOTHER iconic look for the actor.