The true crime story of Boston gangster James ‘Whitey’ Bulger is one that, at first glance, seems ready-made for the big screen, with a larger-than-life central character and a mephistophelian deal at the centre of it. What makes Scott Cooper’s ‘Black Mass’ all the more intriguing as a prospect though is Johnny Depp stepping into the role of Bulger, his first strictly dramatic role in years. Perhaps it's unfair on the film to have that sort of pressure, but most of what is riding on it was the question of whether this would be the career comeback we’ve all been waiting for.
‘Black Mass’ charts the rise of Bulger (Depp) from a small-time crook in Boston in the 1970s to a full-blown crime lord by the 1990s. What makes Bulger’s story all the more tricky is that his rise was aided by being an informant for the FBI - in particular his friendship with Agent John Connelly (Joel Edgerton). Under the guise of helping them root out the Italian Mafia in the city, Bulger uses his immunity to commit acts of extreme violence and terror without anyone to stop him.
The relationship with the FBI sets this particular crime saga apart from most, and Scott Cooper plays it out on a pretty grand scale. ‘Black Mass’ is a handsomely made film, beautifully shot by Masanobu Takayanagi. The framing is clear and precise, the rhythms are careful and considered. Where most crime films (mostly in the wake of Scorcese) tend to move at a frenetic pace with lots of whiz and pop, this film begins to wind the unease and tension from the first frame. Everything is setting you up to be horrified by it, especially with the occasionally haunting score from Tom Holkenborg. Towards the middle of the film, Cooper pulls out two incredible sequences where the tension is sickeningly palpable, twisting your stomach into knots.
The screenplay from Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth is also erudite and clear, though it's here that the inherent problem with ‘Black Mass’ begins to appear. As a synopsis, it seems fit for cinematic adaptation, and certainly in its second act you feel like it’s ramping up for some kind of shocking finale. As Bulger climbs the ladder, his sadism becomes more obvious, and with each careful build you get the sense of a bloody reckoning coming. Unfortunately, ‘Black Mass’ suffers a similar fate to ‘The Theory of Everything’ in that it suddenly realises that history hasn’t given it anywhere to go and that maybe this wasn’t as cinematic a story as it thought it was. Even with Cooper’s assured hand, the film starts to unravel very suddenly and even with its obvious technical merits, it never hammers the final nail into the coffin that would have made it a genuinely satisfying film.
As Bulger, Johnny Depp suffers a similar fate - his performance is both impressive and a let-down. On one hand, Depp shows a level of detail and dramatic skill we haven’t seen from him in a long time, especially at the moments when Bulger becomes truly horrifying. He skirts the edge of melodrama, but that never seems to let his performance down. What ultimately does though is the make-up that transforms him into the very distinct Bulger. It might make him look like his real-life counterpart, but because the features don’t mesh well with his own, the effect is distractingly ghoulish. His performance might blend with the rest of the ensemble, but he sticks out like a sore thumb visually, and so its hard to believe that anyone would think fondly of Bulger. It’s the kind of all-encompassing commitment we expect from Depp, but it would have been better to see more of him and less of his make-up. The rest of the cast though are uniformly excellent. Joel Edgerton takes another massive leap as the dangerously childish Connolly, so determined to impress Bulger that he’s willing to risk his job, his wife (an excellent Julianne Nicholson) and the lives of others. There’s also great work from Benedict Cumberbatch, Kevin Bacon, David Harbour and Jesse Plemons.
Unfortunately, ‘Black Mass’ suddenly realises that history hasn’t given it anywhere to go.
Essentially ‘Black Mass’ is a film about repulsive men doing repulsive things. None of the men in this film are easy to like or sympathise with, but the considered tone Scott Cooper takes with it suggests that perhaps we’re not supposed to. ‘Black Mass’ isn’t the strongest of films, and certainly doesn’t carry enough weight to be considered next to the great crime classics of Scorcese, Coppola or Mann. That said, there is something wonderfully unsettling about it, and at no point did my interest in it wain. It’s a fascinating story with revolting characters, and handsomely told. As an exercise in skill at least, it’s a fascinating film.
RUN TIME: 02h 02m