The first shot of Johnny Depp as the notorious gangster Johnny “Whitey” Bulger is of him sitting in the shadows with his arms crossed, and his cold dead eyes staring at the table deep in thought. This shot of Depp resembles something out of horror movie. Bulger is the vampire of gangsters. The collar on his dark leather jacket pokes slightly up as if it’s the cape on Dracula. Depp oozes the screen with a terrifying persona. “Black Mass” in itself, is a really good gangster film but it’s Depp that carries the film and stands out. “Black Mass” is a platform for the best Johnny Depp performance in years. Of course once the trailer that was released that’s all everyone was talking about. We forgot about “Mortdeci” and just sunk in to Depp’s stirring monster that has hints of humanity that gets torn down.
“Black Mass” follows films like “Mystic River”, “The Departed”, “Gone Baby Gone” , and “The Town” as the next Boston crime drama. Scott Cooper’s Boston based drama may be a center piece for Depp to carry out perhaps one of his career best performances, but it’s a strong and well rounded film as well. Cooper has assembled a great ensemble of actors and tells a haunting and brutal story in a world full of shades of grey. Cooper may have directed one or two actors here to an Oscar (especially in Depp’s case) but the movie doesn’t explore enough of Bulger’s life and the third act feels a bit too short keeping it from the masterpiece status it deserves.
“Black Mass” (of course) follows notorious Irish gangster Johnny “Whitey” Bulger after his nine year stint in prison. Bulger returns back to the south side of Boston and reestablishes himself in the neighborhood. Facing pressure from the Italian mafia and increasing tension over territory forces Bulger to team up with his childhood friend (now turned FBI agent) to leak information to the FBI about the Italian mob in exchange for protection. Bulger though, uses this to his advantage and cements himself as a crime lord of Boston with the FBI stuck right in the middle.
When watching this film you’ll definitely be reminded of Martin Scorsese “The Departed”. Not in terms of tone but it covers similar story beats. “The Departed” is very much inspired by the true story of “Black Mass” with Jack Nicholson basing his character off Whitey Bulger. Cooper though doesn’t try to copy a Scorsese movie (that would almost make this a poor man’s “Departed” even if this is the actual true story that inspired the 2006 gangster film remake of “Infernal Affairs”). Coopers paints the film’s picture with haunting grace and deceiving beauty. There always seems to be an aura of danger as Depp’s presence is felt through every frame. “Mass” is brutal and violent and not for the faint of heart . It also has it’s own wicked sense of black humor that Cooper is able to inject into the film.
Adding the film’s heavy weight and tension is Tom Holkenborg’s (aka Junkie XL) haunting and intrinsic score. I stayed during the ending credits just to listen to his quiet but powerful music hymn over the darkness of the movie theater. Holkenborg also composed this year’s action epic “Mad Max: Fury Road” (and I believe he is teaming up with Hans Zimmer for the upcoming “Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice”) and is showing himself to provide these incredible scores that also become a character unto itself.
Surrounding Depp is a group of a-list actors that all bring their unique talents to the table. Joel Edgerton is the biggest supporting character in this movie. You could make the argument that Edgerton is the co-lead to Depp. As grand as Depp’s performance is, Edgerton holds his own in an equally great performance of his own. He is sneaky, slimy, naive, and looking to achieve his own American dream. He works well off of Depp and is a standout here in the film.
Around them is a group of accomplished actors that play a widening array of supporting roles. Superstar and Oscar nominated actor Benedict Cumberbatch shreds his British accent for an authentic Boston one as Whitey’s senate brother. Dakota Johnson has a small supporting role as Bulger’s wife. She isn’t in it as much as she should be. Johnson is proving herself a capable actress and holds her own in the scenes she shares with Depp. Julianne Nicholson is another standout actress here. Like Johnson, she isn’t in the movie as much as she should be but when she is in it she shines. And, in particular one scene that (once again) is shared with Depp’s Bulger. Corey Stoll has a small role and (like “Ant-Man”) becomes very underused.
What holds this film back is the lack of material in the third act. This movie is too short and doesn’t explore enough of Bulger in his later days as the supreme gangster in Boston. There is some strange time jumps that basically feels like there was large material was left on the cutting room floor. This is a two hour movie that is begging to be a two and half hour long movie (perhaps even a three hour epic).
The film as a whole is still really good. The drawback only happens when the movie feels abrupt. “Black Mass” has masterpiece written all over it but instead it settles for being very good (which I suppose isn’t a horrible complaint to have). This is a showcase moment for Depp to silence all the doubters. He dons his makeup yet again and creates another memorable cinematic character. This is a film we may be hearing more of come Oscar time.