There has been enough fuss over Johnny Depp going into Black Mass that the commercial reception of the film is pretty much locked in; the trailers released in the lead up have all signalled a substantial turn for Depp, whose biggest role in recent times has been as a highly exaggerated and energetic pirate. Any doubts that he could pull of an effective dramatic role as an ice cold, and completely terrifying, South Boston gangster were shot down as soon as the first trailer hit.
And those trailers certainly didn’t lie; Depp pulls of his role as James ‘Whitey’ Bulger with menace and nuance, delivering one of his strongest performances in years, lifted by an impressive cast which includes Kevin Bacon as an FBI boss, Benedict Cumberbatch as a politician and Whitey’s brother, and Joel Edgerton as a high-flying and slightly crooked FBI agent; the latter is the most impressive of the three, with the Australian actor bringing the right balance of nervousness and confidence to his John Connolly.
There isn’t much in the way of originality concerning the plot, which can feel formulaic at times as at spins around the cold ruthlessness of Bulger, who has a strong, fatal (and hypocritical) policy when it comes to snitches or anyone around him who strays from his very straight line – friend or foe. Though there’s that same soulless, lost feeling emanating from Bulger that Al Pacino captured so well in classic gangster flick Scarface when his Tony Montana was briefly at the top of the food chain. Bulger similarly takes no prisoners here; he is strict and unforgiving; straight up creepy when he throws his weight around and arrogantly intimidates almost everyone he comes across.
While there is a method to Bulger which becomes a bit stale at times, the wild card of Connolly balances the drama well, driving the plot with his loyalty to Bulger, whom he grew up with in Southie. Connolly values a loyalty that is more concrete and real than Whitey’s idea of allegiance, using his relationship with the unstoppable crime boss to pull back into the criminal world and convince the gangster to become a loosely-termed snitch for the FBI in exchange for free reign. It’s an offer too good to pass up, even for an anti-snitch gangster who self-righteously murders people for even the smallest mishaps.
Connolly asserts to the FBI that Bulger is a good, reliable source of information on the mafia, convincing his colleagues to overlook Whitey’s social transgressions, which inevitably spin out of control. A matrix of lies and betrayal follow, beefing up the tension on screen which is forever present with Depp hulking around town like an indiscriminate bully on a playground and Connolly working himself into corners just to protect his childhood friend, while also benefiting from the resulting arrests.
Director Scott Cooper has an admirable craftsmanship here, building an atmosphere which complements the slight fluctuations in Bulger’s temper but ultimately presenting something that borrows much too heavily from superior gangster films of the past. Much of Black Mass plays as a supercut of typical true crime dramas, only really rising into something of it’s own with a very well curated cast. Even minor roles like Kevin Weeks (Breaking Bad’s Jesse Plemons) help move the film forward by playing off of Whitey and demonstrating the nervous, unpredictable nature of life in the middle of a complex dynamic between Whitey’s Winter Hill Gang, the FBI, and unseen mobsters the Angiulo brothers.
Review Score: FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Only one feature is included in the one disc DVD release – though it is a good one. A ten-or-so minute featurette focusing on Johnny Depp’s transformation of the role, both in terms of the makeup process, and the character itself. Entertaining and insightful – especially given he was a focal point for any talk or promotion of the film – but sadly all the release has to offer.
Special Features Review Score: ONE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Black Mass is available now digitally and will be released on DVD and Blu-Ray on 17th February.
Film review by Chris Singh. Special Features review by Larry Heath.