Welcome to 1980s Boston, the battlefield in the ongoing turf war between the Winter Hill Gang and Boston’s Italian Mafia. An opportunity arises for Jimmy “Whitey” Bulger, a small-time member of Winter Hill, to conspire with the federal government as an informant. Bulger takes full advantage of it: “We get the FBI to fight our wars, and we get to do whatever we want to do!”
With the feds as his pawns and protectors, Bulger eliminates his competitors and paves his way to become the most powerful criminals in Boston. Portrayed by Johnny Depp, Bulger forges unfair alliances and punishes perceived disloyalties with death, both of which prove to be his downfall.
As the movie takes the audience through Bulger’s rise in Boston, Depp keeps the viewers on edge with Bulger’s personality cocktail of subtle malice and decisive violence. Combine Depp’s stellar performance with impressively portrayed supporting characters, and this makes Scott Cooper’s “Black Mass” a worthy legacy for Bulger.
Cooper, the director of “Crazy Heart,” puts Depp’s formidable abilities to good use. The most brilliant element of Depp’s performance is his portrayal of Bulger’s methodical and intensely sophisticated viciousness. Through Depp’s piercing blue eyes we see Bulger coldly and mechanically rob his fellow characters of hope, reminiscent of the terror inspired by Hannibal Lecter; but in this case the character is entirely sane and simply unfeeling. Bulger becomes increasingly emotionless as he stifles his anger with ambition after his son’s death and his mother’s passing.
The depiction of Bulger’s associates, who are very human, contrasts this characterization, with his brother, Massachusetts Senator Billy Bulger, (Benedict Cumberbatch) his confidant Stephen Flemmi (Rory Cochrane) and his boyhood friend and FBI contact John Connolly (Joel Edgerton). Bulger’s friends seem either blind to his growing mania or refuse to see it. The only character who acknowledges Bulger’s disturbing disposition, Connolly’s wife Marianne (Julianne Nicholson), is emotionally abused and mentally tormented by the menacing Depp, who does not shed even a drop of blood in one of the movie’s most terrifying moments.
Unsurprising and lacking in unexpected twists, Cooper interjects long flashbacks with present-day interrogation testimonies from Winter Hill Gang members. Cooper paces the film well, correlating the intensity of the action and the reality of the testimonies with the peaks and valleys of Bulger’s career and life. Despite sticking to true events, the movie still engages the audience with well-timed scenes and unmatched casting. The most obtrusive loss is Cooper’s failure to develop certain characters, like Corey Stoll’s role as the new district attorney and Cumberbatch’s Senator Bulger. Regardless audiences will be delighted by the film’s superlative quality, as Depp’s Oscar-worthy depiction of Bulger evokes his performances from the 1990s.
Welcome back, Johnny Depp.
Film: “Black Mass”
Director: Scott Cooper
Release Date: Sept. 18, 2015
Star rating: ★★★★★