MPAA Rating: R/ Genre: Biographical Crime Drama/ Stars: Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Rory Cochrane, Kevin Bacon, Jesse Plemons, Peter Sarsgaard, Dakota Johnson, Corey Stoll, David Harbour, Julianne Nicholson, Adam Scott, Brad Carter, Mark Mahoney, Juno Temple, Erica McDermott, Bill Camp, Scott Anderson, David DeBeck, Jamie Donnelly, Patrick M. Walsh, Jeremy Strong, James Russo/ Runtime: 123 minutes
If there is one genre above the others that the argument perhaps could be made really truly is the definitive American film genre, then I think one that should most assuredly be submitted for consideration would have to be the gangster film genre. Indeed make no mistake dear reader: from Howard Hawks with the first take on Scarface in 1932 to Martin Scorsese with GoodFellas in 1990 and Casino in 1995 as well as Francis Ford Coppola with the iconic Godfather trilogy to name but a few noteworthy examples, I am honestly convinced that the cinematic tropes of bullets and brothers in crime have long been a staple of many movie lovers’ cinematic diets. It is with that in mind that I feel you should know that the slice of cinema I am reviewing today, 2015’s Black Mass is a more recent entry in that iconic catalogue of films. However, very much unlike a lot of its cinematic counterparts, this is most assuredly not a slice of cinema that makes the gangster lifestyle look either glamorous or really fun for that matter. Rather, this is one slice of cinema that chooses to put an intriguing focus more so on just how dirty and messy the criminal underworld can truly be whilst also giving audiences good work behind the camera courtesy of dependable film helmer Scott Cooper and his team as well as truly great work from this slice of cinema’s cast especially from Johnny Depp who is just downright magnetic and terrifying in the lead role. Sure you could make the argument that not only does this slice of cinema feel like it would have immensely benefited from being in possession of a significantly longer runtime due to how quite a few of the supporting cast members just seem to inexplicably pop in and out quite awkwardly within the film’s final (including credits) 2 hour and 3 minute runtime and sure this slice of cinema doesn’t really go down any avenues that a slice of cinema of this ilk hasn’t already decided to traverse. Yet I would like to argue that in terms of the former a lot of the blame for that could be put on the studio for how they chose to cut the final film and as for the latter well there really are only so many paths a slice of cinema in this particular genre can go down before it starts reminding you of other movies in this particular genre due to how long this genre has been around in Hollywood. Fortunately, despite these hiccups in the finished slice of cinema there is no denying that this is still a fairly engaging and riveting film that is in possession of an immensely talented cast and crew who are able to help it overcome its flaws and make this entry one that is most assuredly still worth checking out.
The plot is as follows: Black Mass takes us back in time to South Boston (or Southie as the locals know it) where we see that from the early 70s till the mid-90s a particularly ruthless and quite vicious gangster by the name of James “Whitey” Bulger and the equally as vicious Winter Hill Gang which he was the leader of were pretty much the kings of the tight-knit neighborhoods in Southie where they spent their days, among other leisurely past times, engaging in skirmishes with a rival gang of Italians whilst also paying off the local cops in the area to look the other way and let them conduct their business in peace. Yet what most people might not be aware of is that in 1975, Bulger made a top-secret arrangement with no less an organization than the FBI in order to help them bring down the Mafia since that was a mutual enemy that they both shared at the time. A deal he made incidentally when an FBI Agent, and childhood friend of Bulger’s younger brother Billy, by the name of John Connolly puts his name and job on the line and manages to persuade his boss at the Bureau that making this deal with the locally infamous crime lord could be actually a benefit rather than a detriment to the Bureau and their war on crime in the Boston area. Perhaps the most astonishing thing however is that there is a period of time where, for all intents and purposes, it seems like Connelly’s gamble has paid off since Bulger is willingly providing him, and through him the Bureau, vital intel about his criminal competition that can put them out of business for good. However unbeknownst to Connelly and the rest of the Bureau, we quickly learn that not everything is as it seems. This is because Bulger has figured out that by keeping the Bureau focused on his rivals and by having Connelly in his corner to watch his back, he can engage in his own criminal machinations from narcotics to bumping people off who, in their own distinct ways, manage to threaten to throw a wrench in the stability of his criminal organization. However when a new straight arrow federal prosecutor suddenly enters the fray and decides to focus his efforts on prosecuting Bulger and the Winter Hill Gang, we see that what started out as a partnership between two men has now suddenly transformed into two men engaging in a desperate battle. Not only to keep their standing and positions in life that they have managed to achieve courtesy of the work they have managed to do together, but to also keep themselves out of going to prison for their actions no matter who or what has to pay the price for them in their place.
Now in terms of the work done behind the camera, we see that film helmer Scott Cooper does a wonderful job not only of keeping this distinctly a lot more understated than other entries in this genre have been, but also in challenging his actors to give their best work and also in taking this slice of cinema’s script which is fairly unwieldy at times, and to tell you the truth would have worked better if the film was longer, and managing to still find ways to make it work. Not just through expanding the respective worlds of both men to show how different yet also intriguingly similar they are, but also by giving us quite a few moments that are instantly iconic including a dinner scene that is a wonderful mix of darkly comic yet chilling all in one. Finally, we also see that through truly wonderful collaborations with an incredible team including gifted production designer Stefania Cella and immensely skilled costume designer Kasia Walicka Maimone that Cooper is able to immerse this slice of cinema in a distinct look that never once doesn’t seem gimmicky or showy, but rather authentic to the core. As a result, this is one film that doesn’t merely use the late 70s and early 80s as a time period it’s set in; rather it also has the look and feel of a film that was made at that time also. A vibe that is then further strengthened courtesy of how this film’s cinematography department utilizes a style that feels less like a film from today and more like something you would see in either the first two Godfather films or in Klute. Finally, this slice of cinema is also the blessed recipient of a truly haunting yet elegant orchestral musical accompaniment from Junkie XL (as in the guy who did the truly amazing score for Mad Max: Fury Road) that wonderfully strengthens the chilly yet also forlorn mood the film is choosing to work with.
Now in front of the camera, I suppose I should address the elephant in this slice of cinema right off the bat. That of course being the performance given by Johnny Depp in the lead role of Whitey Bulger. Put it simply dear reader: he is absolutely fantastic in the most chilling way possible. Indeed this slice of cinema did not get the Johnny Depp that the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels got. No they actually got Johnny Depp the phenomenal actor who wowed both audiences and critics in such iconic films as Donnie Brasco, Ed Wood, and Edward Scissorhands to name but a few. I mean make no mistake dear reader: this is easily one of the best Johnny Depp performances if not the best we have gotten from him in the past decade because from the moment he steps on screen he is downright terrifying and plays this role less like a ruthless crime lord and more like a coiled king cobra ready to strike at a moment’s notice if not pasty and seemingly nonstop glaring straight into your soul epitome of evil who is intriguingly equally as skilled at having his crew aid an old woman he remembers fondly from when he was younger carry in her groceries at one instance and the next having no qualms about just straight up hunting down and gunning a guy down in the middle of lunch hour at a crowded restaurant parking lot. Yet lest you think this man is just a straight up gangster version of Michael Myers (though I can definitely see how you might think that) Depp also to his credit makes sure to give this ruthless man surprising moments of humanity with people like his kid, the kid’s mother, and especially his mother and younger brother. Suffice it to say this is a truly incredible job and a wonderful excursion from Depp’s fairly lengthy cruise he has been going on in the Caribbean if you catch my drift. Now even though a lot of praise must go to Depp for his truly wonderful turn in this slice of cinema, I also would be amiss if I didn’t mention the equally as brilliant work from the support cast in this film. This starts with Joel Edgerton in the part of John Connolly and he is just as terrific as he was in his other movie from 2015 The Gift. Indeed right from the word go it doesn’t take much for us to be able to pick up on the fact that Connolly is ambitious enough that all he cares about is advancement in his line of work yet also slimy and despicable enough to cross certain lines that most wouldn’t dare think of crossing in order to achieve his goals. Yet even with that sliminess in play, we see Edgerton is also able to do a terrific job at locating just the right degree of humanity within his character so that while we may be repulsed by his decisions, we do also care about his fate as a result of letting his slime-tinged ambition get the best of him. Indeed it is that slime-tinged ambition that also helps this film do a wonderful job of making it difficult to figure out just who (if anyone) is a genuinely “good person” in this due to darn near everyone in this having some level of sleaze to them be they cop or criminal. Now this dynamic duo might be joined by a literal grocery list of immensely talented co-stars such as Benedict Cumberbatch, Adam Scott, Corey Stoll, Kevin Bacon, Rory Cochrane, Dakota Johnson, Jesse Plemons, and Juno Temple to name some examples, but the issue this slice of cinema is saddled with is that due to the 2 hour and 3 minute runtime, a lot of these parts aren’t given as much screen time as they deserve in order to make the biggest impact possible on the narrative. As a result, we see that a fair amount of the rest of this truly terrific collection of acting talent are stuck with not enough in the way of screen time or reduced to playing a stereotype we’ve seen in this kind of film before including Corey Stoll and Kevin Bacon as Edgerton’s hard-nosed superiors at the Bureau, Dakota Johnson as the mother of Bulger’s child, and Julianne Nicholson who is actually not that bad as Connolly’s wife, Marianne to name but a few.
All in all I genuinely do hate to say it like this dear reader, but if you were hoping that the 2015 slice of cinema that is Black Mass was going to be seen by both critics and the movie going public as the next genuinely great gangster film in the vein of something akin to The Godfather or GoodFellas then you may find yourself a tad bit disappointed. This is because whilst this slice of cinema is a very good film it is also not a legitimately great one. Yet there is one aspect of this film that is legitimately great and that would have to be the complete and utter tour de force lead performance by Johnny Depp as Bulger. Indeed not only is it the kind of performance that proves Depp still has a degree or 5 of acting talent in his veins even in the face of such misfires as Transcendence and, especially, Mortdecai *shudder*, but it also proves to be the kind of potent catalyst this slice of cinema needs in order to overcome the flaws that it possesses and become a slice of cinema that is not only riveting and electric, but also a legitimately good time to be had even in the face of such bleak and visceral subject matter. Thus if you want to see one of the best performances Depp has given in the past 10 years, are in the mood for a genuinely good gangster film that is not in any way a chore on your bladder, or both then definitely hunt this slice of cinema down and give it a watch. Sure you could do better, but you could also do a whole lot worse as well. On a scale of 1-5 I give Black Mass a solid 3.5 out of 5.