Directed by Scott Cooper
Starring Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Rory Cochrane, Jesse Plemons
Film review by Kieran Freemantle
In recent years Johnny Depp has been the source of ridicule, starring in blockbuster flops (The Lone Ranger), critically derided films (Mordecai) or making ill-advised cameos (Jack and Jill and Tusk). Fortunately, Depp has returned to form, leading Scott Cooper’s ensemble cast in the crime-drama Black Mass.
Depp stars as James “Whitey” Bulger, an Irish-American gangster in South Boston who makes a deal with John Connelly (Joel Edgerton), an FBI agent investigating organized crime in Beantown. In exchange for information about the Mafia in North Boston Connelly would get the FBI to turn a blind eye to Bulger’s activities, as long as they are not involving drugs or murder. Bulger and Connelly’s destinies become intertwined, rising up the ranks of the criminal and investigative worlds before falling from a great height.
Depp gives one of his best performances in recent years and easily one of his darkest in his career: it makes a nice change of pace from him playing larger than life eccentric characters like Jack Sparrow and Tonto. As Bulger, Depp was a menacing presence, someone who was a cold, calculating character where it is safe to presume that you are permanently on his bad side. Depp plays Bulger with a deliberate restraint, a man who shows little emotion: he is calm and collected when threatening someone and when Bulger does express anger after a tragic event he still holds back.
Depp is surrounded by a huge cast, containing the likes of Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Corey Stoll, Peter Sarsgaard, Dakota Johnson and Kevin Bacon just to name a few. Cooper is a director many actors clamber to work with, his debut movie had Jeff Bridges winning an Oscar in Crazy Heart and Out of the Furnace had Christian Bale, Casey Affleck and Zoe Saldana. Black Mass has Cooper's biggest cast yet and most of them deliver strong performances - the least we would expect from a cast of this calibre. Even recognisable actors like Juno Temple appear in very minor roles.
Whenever any true life American gangster story is brought to the big screen the spectre of Martin Scorsese will hang over it. Black Mass does have a Scorsese air to it, focusing on violent crime, gang wars and internal gangster conflicts - setting the film in a working class area with a close sense of community and a distrust of law enforcement and having the aforementioned rise and fall narrative. Cooper and the writers also use multiple voiceovers, through the framing device of police interview, being a strong way to exposit information without it being too forced.
One of the most interesting aspects of Black Mass is the relationship between Bulger and Connelly and how Connelly protects Bulger from his superior officers, blinded by community loyalty. Bulger and his gang engage in the usual gangster activities of murder, beating, threats, extortion - all that fun stuff. It was a minefield within the FBI as Connelly has to convince his superiors to allow him to run his operation and how Connelly has to fight off everyone questioning his decisions, including his FBI colleagues, investigative lawyers and even his own allies. The lines between Bulger and Connelly become more and more blurred and Black Mass acts like a role reversal Donnie Brasco for Depp. Setting some of the film in Florida does also help to bring these mental connections.
Cooper and his cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi excel at showing a dark, unpleasant criminal world. There is no glamour in being a gangster; it is just violence and bloodshed and Bulger's image as a local hero slowly erodes. He is a thug and a cold-blooded killer who distances himself from everyone. Despite his power and wealth as a gangster he still lives in South Boston and he does not use his money to buy properties or cars or anything like that. Takayanagi is a cinematographer who has specialised filming in rough working class areas of America; his previous films were Warrior, Silver Linings Playbook and Out of the Furnace and he gives Black Mass a slightly grey, drab look. Black Mass is set far away from the Boston of Boston Common, Copley Square and the Freedom Trail and the skyscrapers of the city are miles away in the background. Black Mass focuses on small, rundown homes, dive bars and wastelands.
Black Mass is set over a 10 year period and Cooper and his writers try to incorporate as much of the Bulger story as possible in its two hour running time. A valiant effort but considering the range of criminal activities Bulger and Connelly got up to some parts of the story were only briefly touched on. An example is Cumberbatch playing "Whitey's" brother, a successful politician but he was underutilised and it was barely touched upon as to how having a gangster brother affected his political career. The film could have easily have focused on Connelly and his corruption with Bulger being a supporting character. Black Mass was originally conceived as a four hour long mini-series which goes to show how much story there is.
Junkie XL, the composer for 300: Rise of an Empire, Run All Night and Mad Max: Fury Road supplied the music for Black Mass. He is a talented musician but his signature percussion sound was toned down, making his score for Black Mass a more standard film score and sadly his most forgettable.
Black Mass is a delight for fans of gangster and crime films, being wide ranging with its story about "Whitey" Bulger and the people who protected him. Depp excels in his role and shows what he is capable of when he actually tries. Cooper was trying to bring out his inner Scorsese and he succeeds for the most part.
Want to read more film reviews?