This is Depp’s best performance in years.
We like Johnny Depp. Really, we do, but the last decade or so haven’t been kind. This is due to no small part to his ongoing willingness to star in seemingly every one of Tim Burton’s bizarre films as well as forgettable (embarrassing?) turns in movies like Mortdecai, The Lone Ranger and Dark Shadows. I’m thinking Depp knows this as well as anyone, and it’s why he’s barely recognizable as James “Whitey” Bulger in the endlessly dark and brutal Black Mass.
Things start with Bulger leading the Winter Hill Gang in 1970s Boston, where escalating violence and illicit activity between his crew and local Mafia elements have drawn the attention of the FBI. Into the mix comes Special Agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton, Exodus: Gods and Kings), who grew up with Whitey and William Bulger (Benedict Cumberpatch) in South Boston.
Connolly offers to protect Bulger’s interests provided he does things: (a) inform on the Mafia; and (b) refrain from murdering anyone. While Bulger resents the thought of being viewed as a rat, he sees an opportunity to operate with relative impunity with Connolly’s backing and agrees. His unwillingness to follow the terms of his deal causes problems, however, and it thrusts Connolly into a spot between Bulger and the higher ups at the FBI.
As more time passes, Connolly gets drawn in deeper with Bulger, who employs the FBI connection to effectively take control of organized crime in the Boston area while even expanding his operations into other parts of the country. The question is: how long can it last?
Depp is legitimately menacing in his portrayal of Bulger, highlighted by a pair of uncomfortably intense scenes — one opposite Connolly’s wife, Marianne (Julianne Nicholson), and another while intimidating FBI Agent John Morris (David Harbour) over barbecue. It’s a far cry from his relatively benign portrayal of John Dillinger in Public Enemies and reaffirms his ability to play a serious role.
There are plenty of other strong performances as well, led by Edgerton, who steadily transforms the Connolly character as the movie progresses. He starts as someone idealistic trying to serve the greater good and ends up morphing into something just short of another gangster. It’s good work. A laundry list of well-known actors appearing in smallish roles, including an obligatory Kevin Bacon sighting, round out what’s largely an excellent cast.
It’s an interesting story, too, and one that seems to have played reasonably close to the truth. We’ll confess to being wholly unfamiliar with Bulger’s saga, and watching Black Mass made us read up on it just to see how accurate some of the stuff was.
As cliché as it is for movies to have “good guys” and “bad guys,” the complete absence of the former becomes a bit of a problem here. Outside of some early scenes with his son, Bulger is relentlessly wicked throughout and not in a stylized “it’s fun to root for the villain” sort of way. He’s just a despicable human being. That there’s no counterbalance is an issue as no one on his crew or in the FBI is likable — the closest is probably Bulger’s little brother, but it’s a tangential role.
With no one to root for or even sympathize with, Black Mass becomes a bit of a slog later on. We were still interested in what was going on, and it was well done, but it was a situation where you were just waiting to see what unredeemable act Bulger and company would perpetrate next. It’s a matter of when Person X is going to be killed, not if. We’re not sure how this could’ve been addressed, but the existence of only one psychopathic note eventually wears you down.
THE BONUS FEATURES
In our experience, most Blu-ray/DVD extras are, at best, interesting sidebars. Black Mass, however, packs legitimate companion content led by the compelling hour-long, documentary-style Manhunt for Whitey Bulger. This chronicles his 16-plus years evading authorities, detailing some of his close calls, failures in law enforcement and Bulger’s own skill in staying one step ahead.
It’s really interesting, and the other two special features are solid as well, even if Depp’s comments about Bulger are a little too positive — especially in light of the recent Sean Penn/El Chapo fiasco.
Intense, well acted and utterly bleak, Black Mass is a quality film that struggles with its lack of decent human beings to get behind. If you enjoy crime dramas, however, this is worth picking up, particularly on Blu-ray thanks to an excellent suite of additional content.