Release date: 25 November 2015
Running time: 122 min
Director: Scott Cooper
Starring: Johnny Depp, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dakota Johnson, Joel Edgerton, Kevin Bacon, Peter Sarsgaard
After over a decade of playing drunken pirates and mad-hatters, you’d be forgiven for forgetting that Johnny Depp is capable of playing a real person. Donning a bald cap and contact lenses which change his eye colour to an impossibly piercing blue, there is still an element of dress up in his latest role as notorious Boston mob boss James Whitey Bulger. Fortunately that doesn’t keep him from delivering his most terrifyingly human performance in many a year.
All menacing growls and stares that could bore a hole through granite, Depp’s portrayal of Bulger is that of a man with very few redeemable features. A paranoid bully prone to violent outbursts, Depp is an electrifying and unpredictable presence onscreen, but never one you root for. So often in the gangster biopic genre are the protagonists depicted as likeable anti-heroes; refreshingly, this cannot be said about Black Mass. Occasional looks into his life as a father offer something of an explanation for his actions, but they never excuse them. It is less about telling the story of the man and more about showing the rampage of a monster.
Almost as shocking as the frequent gangland slayings are the corrupt officials who turned a blind eye to them. Joel Egerton delivers as sleazy FBI agent John Connolly, who uses his past relationship with Bulger to recruit him as an informant; albeit one who feeds almost entirely self-serving information. It’s a story of cops and robbers that takes an in-depth look at both sides of the thin blue line, with neither side bathing themselves in glory.
Crazy Heart director Scott Cooper confidently helms the project, telling the story in flashback from the perspective of Bulger’s most trusted accomplices in the form of confessions to the FBI. These segments bookend the significant chapters of the story, highlighting the common theme of snitching for self-preservation. There truly is no honour among thieves here.
Martin Scorsese’s fingerprints are all over this project, with the decade spanning look at Bulger’s rise in the world of organised crime mirroring the life of Henry Hill in Goodfellas, while the duplicitous FBI informing bears more than a passing resemblance to The Departed. Thankfully avoids copying the more recent British effort Legend, which glamourised Cockney mobsters Ron and Reggie Kray to near cartoonish degrees. Black Mass makes no attempt to whitewash or romanticise the life of Whitey Bulger, showing a great deal of respect for its audience. It’s hardly a unique offering, but there’s enough going on to make it standout in an increasingly crowded market.