Gangster movies have tended to glorify (intentionally or not) their subjects since the creation of the genre, but it is rare when there is a film that actively tries to make you hate the gangster. In the rare film in which the gangster is truly the antagonist, it is the law enforcement agent(s) that then get glorified (Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables comes to mind). Black Mass goes the extra mile making both the gangster and the main FBI agent terrible people.
Black Mass is based on the true story of Boston gangster James “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp) and an FBI agent, John Connelly (Joel Edgerton), who formed an unholy alliance with him. The true story is extremely complicated, mainly because nearly everyone involved is still alive, and nearly all of the gangsters have testified against each other. It is hard to tell who is being honest in reality, which adds an extra layer of confusion to the film. But Black Mass is a movie, not a historical document. While there will be detractors who bemoan it as pure “fantasy” (as former Bulger confidante Kevin Weeks labeled it), it’s hard to deny that director Scott Cooper has crafted a dark, atmospheric gangster film that features Depp’s most interesting performance in years.
Depp is the true draw with this film because it marks a return of sorts for the actor. After a serious of bombs intermingled with increasingly boring Jack Sparrow joints, Depp returns looking just as crazy but definitely changing things up a bit with a truly effective performance. Depp, who looks nothing like Bulger in reality (though at this point, it’s hard to tell what Depp’s natural look is), features white blond hair receding into a slicked back helmet, piercing blue contact lenses, and a dead front tooth. The appearance is so jarring that it’s distracting at worst, menacing at best. At times, Depp would not have looked out of place in a vampire film. Oddly enough, it works for the film.
Black Mass is just as much Joel Edgerton’s film as it is Depp’s. In fact, the focus is arguably more on Edgerton’s Connelly character than on Bulger. This actually makes the film more interesting as Connelly is the more complex character. Bulger is not very complicated; it is painfully clear that he is a terrible person, and he is okay with that. Connelly, on the other hand, is pretty awful, morally speaking, but appears to be a bit delusional about it. You get the sense that he truly believes he is doing a good deed by protecting Bulger. Depp is the draw that gets you to the movie, but Edgerton anchors the film.
The supporting cast is nothing short of amazing, featuring the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch, Rory Cochrane, Jesse Plemons, Dakota Johnson, Kevin Bacon, Peter Sarsgaard, Adam Scott, Corey Stoll, Julianne Nicholson, W. Earl Brown. They each have their moments, making this one of the most impressive casts of the year.
Director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart, Out of the Furnace) takes a close up approach that gives the film a more intimate, grimy feel that fits with the time setting. That setting is what also makes Black Mass unique. Bulger comes across as the least glamorous gangster of all time, which adds to the character. He seems to simply enjoy the things he does. The money is inconsequential. In fact, Connelly seems to be enjoying the money more than Bulger.
Gangsters, crooked cops, murder, etc. is familiar territory, though, even if much of the approach is unique. It doesn’t help that Bulger’s story was the inspiration for Martin Scorsese’s The Departed, making the plot something many viewers have literally seen before. Some might be exhausted by this particular story even if it has not technically been told yet. If that is the case, Black Mass might not be unique enough to garner your interest. But if you are always up for a gangster movie (like me), and you yearn for another great performance from Johnny Depp (like me again) then you will find plenty to keep you interested in Black Mass. Just don’t expect to end up rooting for the bad guys, because this time, they’re actually bad.
Black Mass receives a: