In 1975, James “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp) works with his childhood friend and FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) to take down the Italian mafia in Boston. But while the FBI celebrates their win, Bulger uses his relationship with Connolly to strengthen his crime lord status in Boston and along the East Coast.
Black Mass is the first movie I’ve seen in a long time where Johnny Depp isn’t playing a “character.” Yes, he’s acting as a character in the movie, but he’s not putting on an act as the character. There’s a huge difference.
It helps that James “Whitey” Bulger was a real person (a psychopathic gangster, but a person nonetheless), not a caricature that’s loosely defined by quirks and wardrobes, which is where all of Depp’s roles have been rooted for the last decade or so. But I have to say, it’s refreshing to see Depp back in true acting form. I don’t want to start the Oscar speculation too early, but since it’s already going on, I have a feeling Depp will at least make the long list.
Beyond Depp’s performance and the equally-good performances of Joel Edgerton as the cocky John Connolly, Benedict Cumberbatch as the stoic Billy Bulger, and Dakota Johnson as the mother of Bulger’s son (a disappointing blink-and-you-miss-it role), the movie itself isn’t anything amazing. I’m not saying it’s bad; it’s just that I’d probably use “interesting” to describe it more than I would “entertaining,” which I’m sure could be said of most mob-related dramas.
A lot of that is purposeful, though, for the sake of tone. Black Mass was written and filmed to be cold and distant. After all, it’s about a psychopath. Everything from the lack of music during tense dialogue to the colored contacts worn by Depp and shadowing around his face is meant to place the audience in a state of unnerve. And boy is it effective. I just wish it didn’t make the film seem so…off.
Also, I know there were several articles that came out about how Black Mass doesn’t tell Bulger’s whole story, which…no shit. The film is two hours long already, so there’s only so much room. Sometimes, filmmakers have to get creative to connect necessary plot points (Also, when has a biopic ever been 100% accurate?). If, however, we want to argue about how the film portrays Bulger as a crooked man with a good heart, then I could understand why there’d be some controversy.
Because Black Mass does occasionally try to drive some empathy for Bulger (like with the death of his son and his mother or the “help the little old lady” scene). Given Bulger’s real-life history, that controversy would make sense. But to split hairs about what was fictional misses the point of the film, which was to tell a story. Or give Johnny Depp a chance at an Oscar. Either way, really.
Overall, Black Mass isn’t a “wow” film, but its actors put in excellent performances. Johnny Depp obviously stands out as notorious Boston gangster James “Whitey” Bulger, and I can honestly say this is the first time in years that I’ve watched Depp and thought of him as a great actor. Here’s hoping this Johnny Depp sticks around.
Black Mass: B+
For my radio review of Black Mass on “Pat & JT in the Morning,” visit this link (starts around the 22:01 mark)