Release Date: September 18, 2015
Runtime: 122 minutes
Studio: Warner Bros.
Director: Scott Cooper
Cast: Johnny Depp; Joel Edgerton; Benedict Cumberbatch; Dakota Johnson; Julianne Nicholson; Kevin Bacon; Peter Sarsgaard; Rory Cochrane; David Harbour; Adam Scott; Corey Stoll; Jesse Plemons
Johnny Depp is a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination in what is arguably the best performance of his career as James “Whitey” Bulger, a small-time Boston hood who grew to become one of the FBI’s most wanted. Scott Cooper’s riveting “Black Mass,” based on the book of the same name by Boston Globe journalists Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill, is a brutal and uncompromising piece, right in line with the life of its subject.
Jim “Whitey” Bulger is a big fish in a small pond in 1975 Southie (for those unfamiliar with the MA lingo, this is the area more formally known as South Boston). Running drugs, racketeering, and the like are his game. His brother, Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch – while not a physical likeness to his real-life counterpart is still excellent and affects a nice Boston accent considering his Britishness), is a (real-life is stranger than fiction!) Massachusetts state senator. His boyhood chum, John Connolly (Joel Edgerton, in a sublime performance that may earn him an Oscar nod too), is an FBI agent recently assigned to the Boston bureau and specifically tasked by his higher-ups (including Kevin Bacon and Adam Scott) to bring down the Mafia operating in Boston’s predominantly Italian North End. John approaches Jim, his childhood pal whom he knows is pretty much running Southie with his Winter Hill gang, with the proposition of forming an “alliance” with the FBI – essentially becoming an informant for them and feeding them information about the North End Mafia. Determined not to be seen as a “rat,” Jim mulls it over and finally sees the positives in allowing the FBI to nail the competition whilst shielding him and the Winter Hill boys from persecution, thus allowing them to effectively run amok under the protection of the feds. Not a shabby deal!!
Once the Mafia is felled, however, and suspicion is piqued at the FBI as to why they are still protecting Whitey and his band of thugs, it’s not long before the house of cards comes crashing down.
Now, as a native Bostonian, I can sniff out a lame attempt at a Boston accent a mile away and nothing grates on my nerves more than hearing someone trying to imitate this distinctive affectation by simply dropping the ‘r.’ Let it be said, though, that Depp (and, moreover, the entire cast) nails it! However, it’s not just a matter of getting the accent right. Even shielded behind sunglasses, you can see it in Depp’s eyes; he is channeling Bulger. It’s almost a possession. In some instances, just his glare is terrifying. One scene in particular set at dinner with John and his FBI partner, John Morris (David Harbour), sees Depp so totally mesmerizing that for a moment, you find yourself in fear for your life right there in the comfort of a movie theater! Now THAT’S ACTING!!
Director Cooper doesn’t propose to make a biopic of Whitey Bulger, per se, but rather creates a sort of companion piece to other gangster pics like “Goodfellas” or “Donnie Brasco.” While not necessarily reaching the heights of Scorsese at his meanest, “Black Mass” does hit all the right notes you could want from a class A gangster pic. Cooper presents a picture that’s streamlined, focused, rich with period color (the screenplay is by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth; production design by Stefania Cella) and saturated with spectacular performances across the board.