Johnny Depp’s icy blue eyes pierce through the screen and stay with the viewer long after “Black Mass” is over. Throughout the film, Depp, wearing contacts and covered in frightening prosthetics, reminds audiences that he is still one of the greatest actors of his generation.
But it’s not just Depp’s performance that elevates “Black Mass” above other films in the crime genre — there’s a skilled ensemble cast, a strong script by Jez Butterworth and Mark Mallouk and sure-handed direction from Scott Cooper. Based on the true story of real-life Boston crime lord James “Whitey” Bulger, “Black Mass” approaches the gangster as a human being and explores the forces that shaped him and how he shaped his world by force.
The story begins in 1975 with Bulger (Depp) rising through the ranks of the criminal element in Boston. Determined to take down the rival Patriarca family, Bulger becomes an FBI informant and answers to agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), who grew up with him as a child.
Bulger takes advantage of his informant position by committing numerous murders without the threat of arrest. Connolly covers for him while his suspicious superiors begin to crack down on his operation against the Patriarca family. As the bond between both men strengthens, their respective worlds begin to collapse.
Depp delivers an Oscar-worthy turn as Bulger. He displays startling coldness during instances of violence and makes it apparent that Bulger is always the smartest man in the room. His most menacing scene by far is when he gets an FBI agent to spill a “secret” family recipe and threatens to kill him if he spills any bigger secrets he may have about Bulger’s activities.
Yet, he also gives the film some tender warmth, especially in the few scenes he shares with his son. Aided by the script, Depp’s layered performance helps audiences understand Bulger as a person.
The film introduces the audience to Bulger as a loving father, brother, boyfriend and son; there’s glimpses of humanity behind his brutal veneer. It isn’t until the death of his young son that Bulger loses his soul and falls into the abyss. By the third act, Bulger’s lust for power consumes him.
“Black Mass” lends nearly equal focus to Edgerton’s Connolly. Though he aims to become a force for the law, Connolly is just as ambitious as Bulger. His methods grow increasingly corrupt as he hides Bulger’s crimes to ensure he continues getting information. But, the film suggests Bulger did little to help the FBI and argues Connolly’s decisions may have been influenced by his childhood friendship with the gangster.
Edgerton’s performance is just as slimy as Depp’s but less obviously so. Connolly is a man who has deluded himself into believing he is doing good and does little to make others see him in similar light.
“Black Mass” moves forward swiftly. It never drags and always engages. Sometimes it moves a little too fast, though, skimming through Bulger’s ascension and passing over important events that are merely referenced by the characters later on.
One of the year’s finest films so far, “Black Mass” is poignant, disturbing and fundamentally human. At its core is the masterful Depp, playing a monster with a heart, though a dark one.
Title: “Black Mass”
Running Time: 122 minutes
MPAA Rating: R
Score: 4.5/5 stars