Black Mass (2015) Directed by Scott Cooper. With Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Kevin Bacon, David Harbour, Jesse Plemons, Corey Stoll and Dakota Johnson.
Is it possible to make a gritty 70’s/80’s gangster picture without feeling the overriding influence of Martin Scorsese? If so, the Boston-set Black Mass doesn’t achieve it. But then, is that such a bad thing!? As cinematic influences go, you can’t aim much higher. Directed by Scott Cooper, this true story of Irish mob kingpin, Jimmy “Whitey” Bulger, is home to a compelling central performance by Johnny Depp.
Throughout his career, Johnny Depp is known for playing larger than life roles – often ones that require a large degree of physical transformation. In some cases, his characters have outshone the actual films. As the reprehensible Jimmy Bulger, Depp is the furthest he’s been from his long-perceived sex-symbol status. With crazy contact lenses, a few dead front teeth and a receded hairline exposed by greasy, slicked back hair, he fits comfortably into the role a violent psychopath fed by ego and power.
The title ‘Black Mass’ refers to an inversion of the religious practice of the Roman Catholic church, in which the devil is worshipped. It is a good fit to describe the contradiction of the God-conscious gangster, who excuses himself as a homicidal maniac by adoring his mother and attending church. Like so many, Jimmy Bulger fits this bill. He is a man of wily inconsistency, bending his own code of loyalty to suit. Depp’s performance fully captures the foul stench of a rotten soul, a destructive force in the life of anyone unlucky, desperate or stupid enough to associate with him.
Based on literary source and adapted for the screen by co-writers Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth, the film boasts a rich array of acting talent. The complicit nature of Joel Edgerton’s FBI agent, John Connolly, makes for a fascinatingly torn-between-two-worlds character. As the stakes raise, John Connolly’s childhood bond with Jimmy makes his professional and private life increasingly difficult. Edgerton is superb, playing the escalation of fear and masked denial with great disquiet.
This is one of those true stories you couldn’t make up. Perhaps that’s best explained by the fact that Jimmy Bulger’s brother (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) was the US senator for Boston. High political office and brutal criminality is an uncomfotable juxtaposition, as Cumberbatch’s William Bulger is depicted to adopt a look-the-other-way stance on his brother’s crimes. It’s another fascinating side to the story – a man on the FBI’s most wanted list enjoying direct relationships with men in powerful societal roles.
While Black Mass can’t be considered a high watermark in the long history of memorable gangster movies – under Scott Cooper’s fine direction, it still manages to be largely riveting. The ‘funny how?‘ scene from Goodfellas is replicated (though I did fall for it), and it sometimes skirts so close to Scorsese to render itself incidental by comparison. But, little of that seems to matter thanks partly to several fine performances dotted around Johnny Depp’s monstrous illustration of pending violence and threat. 4/5