For some reason, organized crime lends itself well to cinematic storytelling. Classics like The Godfather and Goodfellas come to mind, their appeal lying in the allure of pulling back the veil to expose a world that we’d never otherwise see. Black Mass fits squarely within the genre, recounting the exploits of notorious Boston gangster James “Whitey” Bulger. While not without its shortcomings, I found Black Mass compelling, due in large part to a superb performance from Johnny Depp (Mortdecai, Transcendence), one of the most versatile actors of our time.
The film begins in the early 1970s, introducing us to Bulger, a low-level hood navigating the streets of South Boston. Bulger is in clear command of his small group of associates, engendering respect within the community. Loyalty is an essential attribute for any foot soldier, and Bulger inspires such devotion in the brutal, insular enclave known as “Southie.” Bulger operated brazenly, largely because he struck a deal with the FBI to inform on his rivals, shrewdly keeping the Feds at bay while eliminating his competition. From Bulger’s perspective this was not “snitching,” because he wasn’t ratting on any close friends, only his enemies – the Italian Mafia in Boston.
I noticed that the film never really delved into a depiction of Bulger’s criminal enterprise; it only mentioned that he was involved in drugs, vending machines, rackets, etc. Filmmaker Scott Cooper (Out of the Furnace) never shows us Bulger’s operation, and we are told about rather than shown his ascent up the criminal ladder. Joel Edgerton (The Gift) co-stars as FBI agent John Connolly, a childhood friend to Bulger whose loyalty gave Bulger carte blanche in Southie. Connolly essentially acts as Bulger’s eyes and ears in the Bureau, giving him unparalleled sway in South Boston.
I’ve seen some criticism of Depp’s performance, and find it baffling that anyone would find fault with that particular aspect of the film. He was menacing, exuding a chilling presence that emanated from every scene and steely stare. This is the Johnny Depp that I like, not the quirky weirdo from Pirates of the Caribbean or Charlie And the Chocolate Factory. I thought he gave Bulger complexity, and I didn’t think his performance was one-note. I contrasted his depravity with the humanity Bulger showed in relation to his son and mother, which were moments of compassion and sensitivity. However, make no mistake: Bulger was a monster. He would devour anyone, and when he told one character that he’d eat him – I believed it. A few memorable scenes solidified this sentiment, particularly one involving Bulger and Connolly’s wife Marianne. Depp nailed it, and this scene captured both Bulger’s psychosis and Connolly’s weak complicity to perfection.
While watching Black Mass, I couldn’t help but be reminded of 2006’s The Departed, which was loosely based on Bulger. If you’ve seen that film, it may be helpful to think of Depp/Bulger as Jack Nicholson and Edgerton/Connolly as Matt Damon’s character, at least initially. Of course The Departed is a superior film, but I digress. Black Mass’ cast was stellar, and having the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game) and Kevin Bacon (Cop Car) in ancillary roles only bolstered the overall weight of the film. I’m a fan of the genre, so I noticed an homage (or rip-off) of the classic scene from Goodfellas when Joe Pesci yanks Ray Liotta’s chain when a joke goes awry. I don’t know if this was intentional or accidental, but it reminded me that although Black Mass is a solid addition to the genre, it isn’t replacing any of our favorites. Depp can flourish in these types of roles (evidenced here as well as in earlier works like Blow and Donnie Brasco) and should take on the task more often. While some aspects of the film could’ve been improved upon from a storytelling perspective, the principals (Depp and Edgerton) really delivered. Grade: A-