Director: Scott Cooper
Writer(s): Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth
Cast: Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dakota Johnson, Jesse Plemons, Rory Cochrane, David Harbour, Julianne Nicholson, Kevin Bacon, Adam Scott, Peter Sarsgaard, and Corey Stoll
Synopsis: The true story of Whitey Bulger, the brother of a state senator and the most infamous violent criminal in the history of South Boston, who became an FBI informant to take down a Mafia family invading his turf.
*Reviewer Note: This will be a spoiler free review.*
*Reviewer Note 2: I fell behind on my movie watching, so some anticipate some more reviews this week*
Black Mass is based on the book “Black Mass: The True Story of an Unholy Alliance Between the FBI and the Irish Mob” written by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill, and based on the true life of arguably one of the most notorious gangsters ever, James “Whitey” Bulger. Whether or not all the events in the film happen or not – two of the real life people that rolled with Bulger say some stuff was not true – the film is a brooding, dark, gritty and tremendously acted film.
The film stars in 1975 as we get an idea of who James, or Jimmy, “Whitey” Bulger (Depp) is to the people surrounded by him. The film is introduced by Kevin Weeks (Plemons) as he’s being integrated and says that Bulger was a small time guy and suddenly he became one of the biggest names in South Boston or Southie as they called it. From there we’re introduced to John Connolly (Edgerton), who has returned to Boston and has joined the FBI. His first ambitious move, reunite with his childhood friend Bulger and convince him to join forces to take down the Mafia running North Boston. Bulger seeing this as an opportunity to take down the competition agrees and here is what beings his reign as the kingpin of Boston.
The film isn’t just about Bulger, the film is also about John Connolly. The two get the same amount of screen time and Connolly gets his hands a bit dirty in his own way as much as Bulger. Connolly thinks Bulger is the FBI’s saving grace against the Mafia in Boston and it clouds his judgment from time to time, and it makes him – arguably – as corrupt as Bulger. All of it, done well by the great and always reliable Joel Edgerton.
Here is where I run into a problem with Black Mass. The film itself is just okay, but it is elevated thanks to the performances of the impressive and huge cast. Depp and Edgerton at the forefront and the supporting cast play their parts well. Depp is back to true form here. This is the kind of films I like Depp in, where he show his true potential and great acting prowess. Forget the wacky roles that he’s been playing for years now, it is when he plays a serious and real character that you remember how great he is, and playing Bulger is one of those roles. He’s terrifying and intimidating when he has to be, that includes scenes with Dakota Johnson’s Lindsey Cyr and Julianne Nicholson’s Marianne Connolly, the wife of John Connolly. As good as he is as Bulger, he can also be rather charming when he has to be, which is rather odd to see after all the scenes that involve him being a terrible person.
Edgerton, on the other hand, has his fair share of great moments with and without Depp, but his character at times is so blinded by the myth that is Bulger that he becomes a bit distracted of his real duties as an FBI agent. He also becomes a bit cocky that he managed to get one of the most wanted criminals the bureau ever wanted to work for them instead of taking him down.
The supporting cast all plays their parts on point and all have their moments to shine, considering how big the film is. Jesse Plemons’ Kevin Weeks and Rory Cochrane’s Steve Flemmi provide framing devices for the most part, but also Bulger’s most loyal allies that will follow him to the end, as does W. Earl Brown as John Martorano. David Harbour’s John Morris plays the more conflicted FBI agent when it comes to working with Bulger and has one of the best and most tension filled scenes that involves a recipe. Kevin Bacon pops in as head of the FBI section in Boston as Charles McGuire as does the surprise cast member of Adam Scott as Robert Fitzpatrick.
Unfortunately, some cast members don’t fare that well as others. Dakota Johnson, Julianne Nicholson and Juno Temple are the only real female characters in the film, but it feels like they don’t much as characters. Johnson and Nicholson have more substance to their roles but Johnson disappears after the first half hour of the film and her scenes with Depp are the best at getting some dimension from Depp’s Bulger, and you miss it afterwards. Corey Stoll appears at the end as new District Attorney Fred Wyshak and Peter Sarsgaard’s Brian Halloran is a bit all over the place and although his character calls for it, I could have seen anyone else playing that role. Finally, Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays U.S Senator Billy Bulger has literally about ten minutes – if that – of screen time and has only one real good scene with Edgerton near the beginning of the film. His brotherly connection to Jimmy Bulger isn’t even touched on too much, and they only have a couple scenes together. It’s kind of a shame really.
So despite the great cast and performances, Black Mass doesn’t really do much in getting us more in the head of Bulger. It does early on with the scenes with Johnson’s Cyr but that’s about it. We don’t get more into his head at all and it probably tries to make up for it by giving those conflicted moral scenes to Edgerton’s Connolly, but great acting only takes you so far.
All in all, Black Mass is filled with by great performances led by Johnny Depp and Joel Edgerton. The film is a bit grim and hard to watch in some scenes, but the slow burn to the film may turn off some viewers anyway. Black Mass isn’t the perfect film or tale of Bulger’s legacy, but it worth the watch.
4 out of 5