In a crime-thriller that feels unlike most of its brethren, Director Scott Cooper continues with his specific style of very reserved dramatic heft to deliver a cold, calculated look at one of Boston’s most notorious criminals. Cooper, also known for directing Out of the Furnace and Crazy Heart, was clearly looking for a film to put the pieces together for him, after his prior two films featured good acting and story-telling, but not quite enough tension or excitement to keep the audience completely engaged. Black Mass is that film.
Forget the idea that this is like your run-of-the-mill crime film; it’s an easy comparison to want to put this in the same category as the films that made Scorsese famous, but this is much darker and more morally empty than anything he’s attempted. Black Mass is not fun film to watch, but it accomplishes so much, both in the performances and in the narrative, thus creating that feeling of movie greatness throughout its run time.
Johnny Depp is unrecognizable as Whitey Bulger, a crime kingpin who takes out his competitors by forming an alliance with FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), thus setting up a fragile relationship where Bulger, an Irishman, would feed the FBI (Edgerton’s co-workers are played by Kevin Bacon, Adam Scott, and David Harbour) information about the Italian mob, thus giving him free reign to commit crimes, murder, sell drugs, sell weapons, under Connolly’s corruption. Intertwined with this is Bulger’s relationship with his brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch) whose reputation could take a hit if his brother has a fall from grace.
Rory Cochrane, W. Earl Brown, and Jesse Plemons star as members of Whitney’s group, along with important supporting performances from Dakota Johnson, Julianne Nicholson, Corey Stoll, and Peter Sarsgaard.
Depp has made his career playing eccentric, bumbling roles in the Tim Burton canon, also gaining notoriety as Captain Jack Sparrow, and it’s hardly a secret that Depp’s choices of roles involve him transitioning, with plenty of makeup, into another person, the type of actor that we could refer to as a chameleon. It’s a large-scale performance for him that could result in some awards buzz, he’s absolutely fantastic in this.
Part of it is the appearance, thanks to some strong makeup, Depp is made to look a lot like Bulger and in the beginning, it’s a little strange to see him play such a sleezy character, but after the initial shock, we only see the character, less of his performance, which is an absolute compliment. There are scenes of pure intimidation, a few of dark comedy, and a lot of pure violence, to which Depp pulls off all three very, very well. It’s the performance of his career, and not much can be said about negatives in his carefully structured nuance.
The film captures Boston in a similar way that its predecessors did, it’s a dark, sometimes dirty film featuring an Irish gang, and an over-plot that has become pretty familiar through the years. The difference in Black Mass is a special sort-of hollowness, unlike the dark comedy elements of a Scorsese film. This hollowness is what makes it unique, but also what makes it a bit disappointing.
There’s a feeling of distance among the characters, party from the supporting performances of his gang members, where the legitimate supporting actors have less to do than some of the right-hand men that Bulger hires. People like Cumberbatch or Bacon or Scott are severely underused, which does party hurt the pacing of the film.
Relationships among characters become strained without much explanation as to why, and when Bulger has a death in the family, he separates from long-time girlfriend Dakota Johnson, who is excellent in her two scenes, but then we never see her again. To under-utilize both Cumberbatch and Johnson at this point in their careers is a huge mistake. So, although Depp and Edgerton really carry this movie and both will be in end-of-season buzz, there are characters that feel rushed or underused, which is interesting at the movie’s already hefty running time. I, personally, would’ve been fine with the running time being a half-hour longer, just to explain certain things in his life a little bit better. Outside of this pacing and slight emotional hollowness, this is an amazing film.
It’s violent, it’s captivating, it’s wonderfully shot, and what Scott Cooper gets out of Depp here is a committed and powerful performance beyond anything he’s done before. While capturing the time period is very important, we’ve all seen 80s gangster films; what’s important is the character study, and we get plenty of that. It’s about Depp and his rise, and about Edgerton and his corruption, and these two stories are aided by pretty wholesome characters on the outside, like Benedict Cumberbatch or Dakota Johnson or a small Peter Sarsgaard role. This is a well directed crime-thriller that will go down as one of the year’s best, it’s just immensely competent despite some small ticks in it that keep it from greatness.