This is Depp as a cold, calculating evil presence in a film that doesn’t break any new ground in the mobster genre. But Depp is the centerpiece and better than the movie Director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart) built around him. And Joel Edgerton is no slouch either. This is Depp’s movie but Edgerton as FBI agent John Connolly, also gives a solid performance in this chilling film.
This is the true story of South Boston mobster James "Whitey" Bulger and how Connolly used Bulger to break the Italian mob stronghold, as well as how this Irish bad guy used law enforcement to aid his murderous rise to the top of the Boston gangster food chain in the 1970’s. Written by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth from the book “Black Mass: The True Story of an Unholy Alliance Between the FBI and the Irish Mob” by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill, Black Mass is an intense look inside the Southie Mob(Boston’s rough neighborhood at that time), but the veil over Whitey Bulger is never pulled off completely.
Every frame of this film revolves around Whitey, even when he is off camera the audience and the characters on screen are wondering where he’ll appear and will death come along with him. It took 2.5 hours in the make up chair each day to put all the prosthetic devices on Depp’s face and head to give him the protruding forehead with the receding blonde hairline. The hand-painted, piercing, light blue contacts he wears gives him a lizard-like aura. The menacing look is topped off by a rotting front tooth. The real James Bulger never bothered to risk a dental appointment to get it fixed.
His boyhood friend John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), who became an FBI agent, enlisted Bulger as an informant to bring down the Italian Mafia. Connolly thought he could outsmart his bosses, get rid of the Italian gang and keep Bulger in check. What he didn't see coming is that Bulger used the FBI to do his dirty work while he moved in and ran Boston's underworld without opposition from both sides of the law.
Bulger is a crudely efficient criminal. He and his henchmen Kevin (Jessie Plemmons) and Steve Flemmi (Rory Cochrane) shoot and strangle without hesitation or remorse. It’s business as usual. Complicating matters even more is Bulger's brother, Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch), a State Senator and one of the most powerful politicians in Massachusetts. Did he cooperate?
Boston is a major character in this film. Some scenes were shot in surrounding decaying communities like Chelsea and Lynn, (that’s where Al was born). There is nothing pretty to look at. The dilapidated clapboard houses and the grimy streets add the right visual counterpart to the misery of the people we’re watching. The scenes of Miami were actually shot at Revere Beach nearby adding palm trees and turning a pizza place into a Cuban café.
We know what a Boston accent sounds like and we can tell you, Johnny Depp could pass for a native. He says he hung out with Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry to get the accent. He has a thick, but not outlandish “wicked bad” Boston accent. Most of the other actors produce a somewhat credible Boston sound. Benedict Cumberbatch tries his best, but he never completely loses his more refined British sound which we think weakened his performance.
There are just a few women in this tale. Bulger was not above murdering females, but perhaps the scariest moment in the film is his encounter with Connolly’s wife Marianne, played by Julianne Nicholson. If you just read the dialogue, this might seem like an innocuous moment. But Depp’s pacing, his steady gaze and his hands touching her hair and neck was terrifying, not only for her. It’s chilling. She knew, and the audience felt, that her life was on the line at that moment. It’s a remarkable scene.
Is this movie worth your bucks? Scott Cooper jams 40 years of Bulger’s life into 2 hours. (It was originally 3 but edited down for pacing). We never tired watching Johnny Depp inhabit his character, but the scenes of Edgerton screaming at his FBI colleagues to keep trusting his criminal pal became repetitive and tiresome. In fact all the FBI agents, including Charles McGuire (Kevin Bacon) and Fred Wyshak (Cory Stoll), raise the decibel level. The real Whitey Bulger who is serving his double life sentence in Maximum Security reportedly doesn’t like Depp’s portrayal, even though he hasn’t seen it. That probably means Depp nailed his subject. But there are reports that Bulger’s buddies were not fans either. Although some consulted on the project as the film was being made.
The story, the violence and the body count are not the reasons you should see Black Mass. Johnny Depp has finally found a way to let us forget his roles in Alice in Wonderland, Dark Shadows and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Maybe Depp’s portrayal of this villainous monster is the only thing we can thank Bulger for. Depp truly embodies this bad dude.