Director: Scott Cooper
Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Johnny Depp, Dakota Johnson, Juno Temple, Joel Edgerton, Kevin Bacon, Sienna Miller, Adam Scott, Corey Stoll, Jesse Plemons and Rory Cochrane
Release Date: 09/18/15
by Monte Yazzie
In the 1970’s and 1980’s James “Whitey” Bulger was one of the most notorious criminals in Boston, running an organization known as the Winter Hill Gang. Bulger operated in all manners of criminal activity but the most unusual of his dealings was with the Federal Bureau of Investigation as an informant. Over the course of his infamous tenure Bulger brought drugs into his beloved South Boston neighborhood and murdered many who defied him. Director Scott Cooper brings this gangster story to life in “Black Mass”, a gritty and hard-edged crime film that mostly succeeds because of the exceptional performance of Johnny Depp who is mesmerizing and intimidating in the lead role.
James Bulger (Johnny Depp) is a loyal son of the South Boston neighborhood he grew up in, a man who amongst his unsavory actions takes time to look after an elderly woman, compassionately care for his sick child, and boast about the importance of friendship and family. William Bulger (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a Massachusetts politician and brother to James; in one instance William talks about cleaning up the streets of Boston only to turn a blind eye to his brothers negative behavior. The Bulger’s childhood friend John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) has set himself up nicely with the FBI, trading freedom for James in exchange for information about the local mob operating in Boston.
The film is framed with a narrative that begins in an interrogation room, with James’ former accomplices spilling information about their boss. From this point the film jumps around with different characters, moving the story from point to point based on questions asked of them during the interrogation. Cooper directs the film, which is based off the book of the same title, with style and characteristics similar to other crime films that have come before it, think “Goodfellas” or “The Departed” as examples. Using these films as a reference for style immediately places the viewer in a familiar position, in a sense working to quickly establish the environment and understand that danger and a double-cross aren’t far away. While the storytelling design works initially, once the film breaks away from James’ composition and begins to focus on the alliance with the FBI or a pointless journey to Florida that serves as a side note to the extending reach of Winter Hill Gang, the narrative begins to fall apart.
The character of James "Whitey" Bulger is treated initial as a sort of local hero, a sharp-as-nails tough guy with a blue-eyed stare and ambiguous smirk who spouts tough guy talk as good as the best of these kind of characters. Johnny Depp is simply impressive, one of the strongest performances from him in recent years. There is no underlying comedy, no humorous gesture to break the tension, just pure, unadulterated intimidation. Depp for most of the film speaks in a soft whisper, allowing his eyes to do the most meaningful communication.