Boston crime films often seem judged against a bell curve of their own — a curve on which they’re held to a much higher standard than their felonious peers. Much of this can be attributed to the fact that in the United States, homegrown gangster activity has often been depicted on film as the pinnacle of antihero exceptionalism, the ballad of the self-made man. In many ways, a great Boston organized crime flicks, captured in productions like The Departed and The Town, serve as our generation’s Shakespeare, and for a white male actor of a certain gait, playing a cop or a criminal in one is tantamount to being asked to play Hamlet.
On the Boston crime film curve, Black Mass does not fare as well as it should. Despite telling the tale of notorious south Boston gangster James “Whitey” Bulger and his Winter Hill gang, Black Mass tends to start more threads than it follows through on. But what may play as a failure in story development is all but made up for in Johnny Depp’s pitch perfect maniacal portrayal of Bulger. The performance is so tight that it not only elevates Bulger to the antihero status expected of films of this ilk, it also reminds viewers at nearly every moment that Bulger, no matter how likable, is deeply terrifying.
That dichotomy — Bulger the prodigal son of Southie, returned from a stint in Alacatraz to get drugs off the street of his hometown and help little old ladies down the street, and Bulger the increasingly paranoid, ever careful criminal who could turn on a dime, and turn back even faster — would have been hard for anyone to display in equal measure. Add on the fact that the actor doing so is Johnny Depp, the Frenchman’s Matthew McConaughey, and viewers can’t be blamed for being hesitant at best about the chances of this movie coming out as anything less than overacted, avant-garde drivel.
Anyone who holds that opinion about Depp and Black Mass is dead wrong.
Depp is bone-chillingly deranged as Bulger, and quickly makes you forget he strode into this film in a balding latex cap, blue contacts, and a dead snaggletooth front and center. It’s Depp’s performance that makes it clear that director Scott Cooper’s adaptation of the 2000 investigative novel Black Mass: The Irish Mob, the FBI, and a Devil’s Deal is less concerned with narrative — despite following a generally chronological storyline — than he is with displaying a different side of the gangster-as-antihero mythology.
From stance alone, perched on a bar stool in an opening scene in skintight pants, Depp commands scenes in a way he hasn’t done in years. Black Mass rarely slows down, and though more credence could have been given as to how the tragedies in Bulger’s personal life (the death of his young son hit him particularly hard), the hits keep coming quite literally, until the very end. Despite giving Depp immense amounts of likability, the often gruesome murder scenes put a very real face to the seemingly abstract murders Bulger committed or had committed, at a pace more on a par with a horror film.
The actors surrounding Depp offer a similar master class here; Friday Night Lights’ Jesse Plemons and Empire Records' Rory Cochrane, playing soldiers in Bulger’s gang, are at their finest in scenes where they’re being interviewed by the FBI for information on Bulger after the gangster had escaped. Joel Edgerton as FBI agent-turned-Bulger informant John Connolly holds his own just fine, and though underutilized, Dakota Johnson, Juno Temple, Kevin Bacon, and Adam Scott all are welcome additions to the scenery. Benedict Cumberbatch, as Bulger’s younger brother Billy, a successful politician who becomes president of the Massachusetts State Senate, is played well by Cumberbatch, save for his atrocious Boston accent. That’s not to say it’s unwatchable, it’s just nice to know we’ve finally found the one thing Cumberbatch can’t do.
Much of Black Mass focuses on our perceptions of ourselves; despite believing that snitching was the worst thing a man could do, Bulger enjoys an informant relationship with the FBI, though he refers to himself as a “liaison.” Connolly was a Southie son just trying to keep up appearances as he should becomes increasingly more manic in a way that’s wholly believable. Even the incredibly disposable women in this film struggled with their places in their own, as well as Bulger’s, world. All of this turmoil is presented in a way that doesn’t highlight the fact that the movie showed precious little of actual Winter Hill gang operations.
All told, Black Mass is a good movie — not a great one — with superb performances. It also has a crippling reliance on attempting to remind the world that Jai Alai was once a thing, and as far as I can tell you now, the film is likely to have just about as much success as Jai Alai itself did. Jai Alai aside, the film works; it’s pacing is breakneck, its turns continuous, and its storyline harrowing, even with all its surrounding American crime mythology. While the movie could have stood to kill a few of its darlings, with a breakneck pace and fully realized characters — Boston crime movie metric or not — Black Mass is chilling, frothy fun.
Black Mass is out on September 18th.
Photos by Warner Bros. Pictures