Scott Cooper, a director with two moderately successful feature films trailing behind him, brings notorious mob gangster James ‘Whitey’ Bulger to life on screen in Black Mass. Bulger was a violent criminal, murderer and illustrious crime boss, who was arrested in 2011 after being on FBI’s most wanted list for 12 years.
Black Mass follows Bulger (Johnny Depp) across several decades, and in doing so provocatively presents a perplexing comparison between three ‘institutions’: Bulger, himself, as a highly organised and renowned crime boss of the Winter Hill Gang; his politician brother, ‘Billy’ (Benedict Cumberbatch), a powerful politician and President of the Massachusetts Senate; and, corrupt FBI Agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton). The film examines the deteriorating tensions and troubles that accompany Connolly and the FBI’s deal with Bulger in which he informs on enemies, Boston’s Italian Mafia, seeking to gain criminal supremacy in Boston. Black Mass is a chronicle of a quest for power and supremacy that spiralls out of control, instilling murder and worsening crime.
Undeniably, one of the most impressive aspects of the film is its cast of performers, and the tone Cooper manages to create with a story that only really skims the surface of a very complex and layered spider web like scenario. It may lack complexity, but Cooper strings together a solid narrative structure and a host of great performances that make Black Mass a film worthy of praise.
There have been plaudits that this may be Johnny Depp’s comeback. His work here was touted, for months, as the long-awaited gritty, dramatic role to showcase the actor’s ability to capture and create standout personalities. Those praises were not amiss. Depp’s portrayal of Bulger is, quite frankly, terrifying and unhinged as he, his crimes and countenance gradually unfurl, losing purpose and control. This is a performance that is much more than its physical transformation. It is beautifully complemented in its placement with some inspired performances from a stellar cast. Joel Edgerton’s ambitious and eventually blind, power-hungry FBI agent Connolly is developed in equal measure, and as well as is possible in a film which strives to condense such a rich narrative into the limits of a feature film running time.
An exciting blend of slow, intimidating scenes in which Bulger is threatening and unpredictable and the air tense in anticipation, with scenes of blunt and bloody violence makes for a mostly gripping cinematic experience. Its focus on attempting to capture the violent and unremorseful persona of Bulger, his deluded relationship with the FBI in which he does not consider himself to be an informant and the complexity of Connolly is a clear strength of Black Mass. The finished film is a biopic with a difference, one that is a little off centre and benefits all the more for it, basking in its great performances.