Everybody loves a good gangster film.
Whether you prefer the shadowy family drama of The Godfather or the stunning expose of Goodfellas, the criminal lifestyle lends itself to a myriad of different portrayals. In the case of Black Mass, it’s the codependent relationship between the Irish-American Mob in South Boston AKA Southie and the FBI.
The story of the infamous James “Whitey” Bulger has been in the pipeline for a long time — Matt Damon was at one point set to produce a version and the character of his Departed costar Jack Nicholson was based on Bulger — so how does Scott Cooper’s interpretation hold up?
The Southie of Black Mass is cold but airy place, characterized by red brick and colorful wood-board exteriors. The dive bars are warmly lit and there’s a lingering sense of community among the older generation. In the light of which it seems like a real shame about the gangsters. Most notable among them is Bulger (Johnny Depp).
Pale, balding, and vaguely reptilian, babyish cheeks and icy blue contacts, he seems equally at home playing cards with his homebody mother as taking apart an informant with a rifle from a distance before stepping in to deliver a chilling coup de grace. He’s certainly a monstrous creation, but what’s most notable, though, is that Depp actually gives a comprehensive performance from under the prosthetic, instead of the grab-bag of quirks and mannerisms on which he’s come to rely in recent years. Equipped with a chilling smile and a malicious gleam in his eyes, he’s a small-time hood till former childhood friend turned FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) returns to the fold with the offer of an alliance.
Though it’s clear that Connolly respects Bulger due to their shared history, their relationship is initially one of expedience, aided by Whitey’s brother, understandably guarded Massachusetts State Senator (Benedict Cumberbatch). To the finicky Bulger this isn’t ratting, just business; to Connolly this is a chance to bring down the Cosa Nostra, the Italian Mob up in North Boston, and climb the career ladder in the process.
As Bulger begins using his newfound immunity to expand his power base in Southie, dispatching his associate Johnny Martorano (W. Earl Brown) to carry out a series of hits, Connolly finds himself out of his depth, protecting a man who has no intention of honouring their agreement.
For Connolly there’s a code of honour, of loyalty, which he insists upon whenever his wife Marianne (Julianne Nicholson) takes him to task over his less-than-desirable associates. Whitey, however, only plays the nice guy when he’s about to break out the rope, such as he uses to animalistically throttle the life out of naive call girl Deborah (Juno Temple).
Black Mass shows little of the details of Bulger’s criminal life. The film’s script, by Mark Mallouk and British playwright Jez Butterworth, is more interested in the corruption of personal integrity (hence the film’s devilish title). Masanobu Takayanagi’s cinematography breathes air into a film that could easily become a twenty-year time capsule and Junkie XL’s melancholy score carries resonances of Nino Rota’s work on The Godfather.
Once again The Program’s Jesse Plemons proves himself a valuable asset as bulgy-faced henchman Kevin Weeks and Peter Sarsgaard is great as the sweaty, unstable Brian Halloran, but this is Depp’s film, his comeback performance after years in the wilderness of Pirates sequels and Mortdecais. A dinner table scene in which he terrifyingly turns the screws on Connolly’s hapless colleague (David Harbour) before turning his attention to Connolly’s wife. Nothing is off limits to Bulger, not even his own personal tragedy, which he sardonically makes reference to with his hand “playfully” around her throat.
While Cooper’s film contains little we haven’t seen before — one event, the murder of World Jai-Alai franchise owner Roger Wheeler, is also shown in Depp-starrer Donnie Brasco — the destruction of the line between cop and criminal, not just in an undercover sense, is a refreshing cup of cold water to the face.
DeNiro and Pacino may have shared a coffee in Heat, but the blurring of the thin blue line rarely extends to Christmas dinner. It’s a less showy performance than either of Tom Hardy’s duel turns in Legend, but seeing Johnny Depp play understated is in itself a pleasure. And, miracle of miracles, the Boston accents are strong across the board.
Black Mass is one unholy communion you’ll want to partake in.