It’s hard to say what struck me harder during Black Mass. Was it the great makeup work on Johnny Depp or Benedict Cumberbatch‘s hilariously fake Brooklyn accent? Or was it perhaps the former’s performance in what is an almost fantastic film about a truly fantastic crime figure? Probably that last one. Will this be Depp’s first Oscar role? I want to be optimistic but my guess is that he will be ignored as usual.
Depp plays small-time gangster Whitey Bulger, an Irish-American who commanded the Winter Hill Gang and various other factions within the world of crime in 1970’s South Boston. Years after his release from Alcatraz, he meets with an old friend of his and his brother Billy’s (Cumberbatch), namely John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), who now works with the FBI and seeks Whitey’s assistance with something important. Connolly’s supervisor, played by Kevin Bacon, dislikes his decision.
Fearing for the life of his loved ones, Whitey reluctantly agrees to become a “rat” to the FBI and help them in their pursuit of the Angiulo Brothers, one of the Winter Hill Gang’s major rivals in crime. In the end, the FBI unwittingly rid Whitey’s empire of competition and although Connolly knows it, he can’t bring himself to make his old friend suffer the consequences of running such a business. Things soon become problematic for them both and anyone who was around in 2011, at which point Whitey Bulger was finally caught, has already seen how the story ended, hence my spoiler is likely not a spoiler.
The film’s supporting cast is both vast and rich, giving us Corey Stoll as a U.S. Attorney, Peter Saarsgard as a colleague of Whitey’s, and Jesse Plemons as one of Whitey’s underlings, who narrates most of the film in a police interrogation set in “present day”. Also in the film is Dakota Johnson as Whitey’s wife, whose acting is good enough to make me forget that Fifty Shades of Grey was allowed to exist and that people who breathe the same air as me paid for it.
Directed by Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart; Out of the Furnace), the film is also heavily based on a novel by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill, and not just the “true story” itself. The screenplay, meanwhile, was given to us by one of the writers of Edge of Tomorrow. I liked Black Mass too, although I was expecting to maybe like it little bit more.
While the film is quite good and Depp’s leading performance is quite even more good, I won’t pretend as if I don’t have complaints. Some of the supporting characters’ screentime is very limited, allowing equally limited character development, and it does have an overall issue with pacing, with scenes that border on being too low-key and boring. At least if you expect the same kind of thriller I picture in my head when thinking of a film like Black Mass. Although the performances are always powerful enough to give most such scenes a little something to enjoy.
I have also heard critics berate the film for borrowing a tad too heavily from gangster films such as the Martin Scorsese classic Goodfellas. I can see where they’re coming from and would like to add that other scenes made me think of something a hardcore Tarantino fanboy would write. That last one isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it’s merely an observation.
To talk a little bit more about Johnny Depp himself, I especially appreciated the fact that he has been cast in a role that’s more terrifying and realistic than most of the eccentric characters he has been typecast as lately. It’s not another Mad Hatter/Jack Sparrow/Willy Wonka/whatever else the public apparently want to see Johnny Depp as. His portrayal of Whitey Bulger is far more serious and, as a bonus, far more scary, which makes me extra glad since it’s a much better attempt at seriousness than the one Depp did in Transcendence. Yes, I gave that film a positive review after seeing it one time and yes, I have changed my mind after seeing it a second.
In spite of certain flaws being too noticeable to ignore, the film is nevertheless gripping, and I will award it 4/5 whatevers. Also, I might be skipping out on movies like Everest and Maze Runner 2 this week to focus a little more on Halloween-related films, what with October fast drawing near and all, but we’ll see where we end up as I also feel obligated to talk about films like The Martian at some point before the horror season.
For now, enjoy this trailer.