Staring: Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Kevin Bacon, Jesse Plemons, Peter Sarsgaard, Rory Cochrane, Adam Scott, Corey Stoll
Directed by Scott Cooper
Johnny Depp finally takes on a role with some meat in his portrayal of notorious Boston gangster James “Whitey” Bulger in Black Mass.
Black Mass charts the true story of the rise to power of small-time Boston crook Whitey Bulger after he enters into an “alliance” with FBI agent and childhood friend John Connolly (Joel Edgerton). For Bulger agreeing to act as an informant, the FBI offers him a level of protection – ultimately allowing Bulger to rise through the ranks of the Boston crime scene. As Bulger and Connolly’s power grow, they become increasingly reliant on each other’s success.
I was expecting a lot from Black Mass, with a rich and gritty true crime back story and a potentially career defining role for Depp. However, unfortunately Black Mass never met those expectations. It’s not that that it is a bad film – in fact director Scott Cooper’s (Crazy Heart, Out of the Furnace) first foray into the true crime drama is a commendable effort – it’s just that Black Mass is completely and utterly forgettable.
When I think of the great crime drama films of the past, like Goodfellas and the Departed, both films capitalized on the edge of your seat tension that could be built from a world of gangsters, rats and corrupt cops, where the stakes of being caught are life or (a painfully gruesome) death. In Black Mass, while the stakes are the same, I was never moved close to the edge of my seat. Given Jack Nicholson’s character in the Departed was based on Whitey Bulger, the irony is that Black Mass does not live up to the film that its real life story inspired.
The problem is that Black Mass just plods from scene to scene. It moves at a monotonous pace from Whitey Bulger intimidating someone, to FBI agents arguing, to Whitey Bulger killing someone, to FBI agent arguing. Even at the film’s climax, it never takes off because it feels like it hasn’t built up enough speed in the first place. Because of this, Black Mass will be quickly forgotten.
However, the saving grace which will keep Black Mass relevant, at least into awards season, is Johnny Depp. Depp’s portrayal of Whitey Bulger is one of his best performances of his career and is certainly the best we’ve seen of him in recent times – which is not saying much given he’s devoted the past ten years to almost exclusively playing cartoon characters. Notwithstanding the make-up, Depp completely absolves himself into the role of the ruthless crime boss. He is deliciously creepy and fearfully intimidating. You eat up every second of Depp’s screen time.
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In a similar league is Joel Edgerton as the crooked and morally corrupt FBI agent John Connolly. Edgerton actually has the most screen-time and in a way the movie is about his character as much as Depp’s. Edgerton is given a wide scope to show off his acting chops, turning his character from an unassuming but ambitious ladder climber of the FBI into a loud and cocky agent operating in the upper echelon. The supporting cast including Benedict Cumberbatch, Jesse Plemons and Corey Stoll are also all excellent – I give five stars all around for their Boston accents. Did I also mention that Kevin Bacon is this movie?
While Black Mass is enjoyable, entertaining and interesting, it never gets the heart pumping, despite the violence and corruption that fills this true tale. Check it out if only for Depp’s fantastic performance. However, I can’t see myself giving this film a second viewing.
Pick up the blu-ray here.