You make a deal with the devil. The devils breaks that deal and when you ask him why, all he can do is smile at you. It’s very bad if the devil you are dealing with is short, has slicked back snow white blonde hair, bad teeth and looks as creepy as the Grim Reaper. That’s Johnny Depp in Black Mass. He gives you a glimpse of the devil.
FBI agent and South Boston native John Connolly(Joel Edgerton) opened Pandora’s box when he made an “alliance” with The Winter Hill gang member James “Whitey” Bulger(Johnny Depp). The original deal/plan was to rid Boston of the ruthless Italians but in the process Bulger used the protection of the FBI to fill his pockets and his tighten his grip on the city. He went from a low level hood to a crime lord in a few years. People ended up in jail, sworn confidants leaked info on Bulger and the alliance crumbled like a house of cards.
That is the basis of Scott Cooper’s take on Bulger, adapted from Black Mass, a book written by a group of Boston reporters on the shady brokerage between the FBI and a gangster. While effective and full of good acting and signature moments, Black Mass never ascends to greatness because it’s a pretty straight forward tale and familiar to film-addicts. Watching it unfold, you can tell what’s going to happen way before it happens. Since there have been at least 50 different gangster films made before it, fact or fiction, the details of Black Mass and Bulger’s rise and fall isn’t shocking, thrilling or incredibly fascinating. It plays out like a Greek tragedy, but lacks the oommpph of a polished Scorsese flick.
Here’s how it goes. Someone gets into a car with Bulger, and starts to explain and Bulger seems to understand. Suddenly, that person gets shot, stabbed or strangled. This happens four different times in the movies. It becomes redundant and makes the entire movie seem a bit less fresh. The overflow of Boston accents also distracts but that is less of a flaw than a by product of the story picked.
The real spark plug here is Depp, back where he belongs taking swings at heavyweight roles. Depp finally found his way back to the right side of the playground, next to the sharper rocks in the sandbox. Showing shades of his work from his two best dramatic adventures, Blow and Donnie Brasco, Depp easily slips into the skin of Whitey Bulger. The man may have had a heart, but it was half full of venom. Bulger was a man driven by power and a need to numb the tragedies of his personal life. Cooper goes out of his way to show us the man as well as the monster, and Depp makes them both work very well. Is it Oscar worthy work? Yes, because of how complete of a performance it is and how chilling Depp can make you feel watching him work. While it may not land in the top 5 performances when 2015 is all said and done, Depp’s Bulger demands your attention.
As much as Cooper aims this picture to be something special, it’s not Oscar worthy. The directing and script are decent if not stand alone worthy. The supporting cast is game if not memorable, with good work from Benedict Cumberbatch(as Whitey’s brother Billy) and Edgerton, as the doomed agent who can’t find a different between ally and user. The pacing of the film allows slower scenes like a dynamic dinner table scene where Depp freaks out an FBI agent over a recipe to be fully realized. The score is rightfully moody and the editing doesn’t allow the film to run away for too long.
Is Black Mass worth your hard earned money at the cinema? Yes, because you need to see Depp’s performance as Bulger to remind audiences what the actor is capable of when the right role comes along. Sometimes source material doesn’t translate as wickedly from the ground to the book to the screen. While Cooper’s movie is far from perfect, Depp’s performance is right on the money and therefore makes Black Mass a trip worth taking.