Black Mass Review: A True Criminal Masterpiece Starring Johnny Depp as Whitey Bulger

Black Mass

The notorious Boston crime boss James “Whitey” Bulger’s icy blue eyes stare out from the screen in Scott Cooper‘s “Black Mass.” Bulger’s gaze is calm and confident, like a jungle predator waiting for the perfect moment to strike. This calm composure extends to every aspect of how Depp portrays the role.

Johnny Depp’s mesmerizing performance is the chief selling point of “Black Mass.”

But there is much more to this sober, sprawling film than just Depp’s great acting. The movie is a deeply engrossing evocation of Bulger’s South Boston fiefdom and his complex relationship with FBI agent John Connolly, played skillfully by Joel Edgerton.

With its muted 1970s aesthetic, “the movie” may not be everyone’s cup of tea. But those who appreciate quality filmmaking will flock to see one of the fall season’s first awards-worthy attractions.

“Black Mass” is a movie that nearly didn’t happen. Based on a book of the same name by Boston Globe reporters Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill, the project went through several directors before finally being made. Jim Sheridan and Barry Levinson were among the directors who worked on it, but the movie almost fell apart in 2013 when Depp quit over a salary dispute. However, the project found new life when Scott Cooper, who showed a sure hand with actors on his prior “Crazy Heart” and “Out of the Furnace,” took over and challenged Depp to give a less-is-more performance.

Depp is unrecognizable in the film’s opening scenes. He has transformed himself with latex, contacts, and whitish-blond hair. Bulger is just beginning his ascent as the leader of the Winter Hill Gang. This is a loose confederacy of Irish- and Italian-American hoods vying for control of the South Boston streets against the mob-connected Angiulo brothers.

As Bulger’s turf war intensifies, Connolly returns to Boston from San Francisco and New York assignments. His mission is to take down the Angiulos and their associates, and he recruits Bulger – his childhood friend – to help him. In exchange for giving the Bureau information about his rivals, Bulger will be granted immunity for his illegal activities. Connolly believes this arrangement will help him achieve his goals and rid Bulger of the competition.

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“Black Mass” is a movie that tells the story of two men from very different worlds. One is a gangster, and the other is a law enforcement officer. The two men are drawn to each other because of their shared desire for power.

The movie follows the increasingly complicated relationship between the two men as they try to outmaneuver the other. Edgerton is superb at showing how Connolly is seduced by the gangster lifestyle, while Scott Cooper gives us a rich portrait of both men’s worlds.

As crime lords go, few are as feared and respected as Whitey Bulger. He runs a tight ship with a loyal crew of thugs that he can rely on – although he’s not afraid to turn on them in a second if necessary (Jesse Plemons and Rory Cochrane play his right-hand men, Kevin Weeks and Steve Flemmi). Connolly is the agent assigned to keep an eye on Bulger but quickly finds himself manipulated by Bulger into helping him carry out his criminal activities (Kevin Bacon and Adam Scott play the agents).

But there is more to Bulger than just a ruthless crime lord. He is also a devoted son to his elderly mother, a loving sibling to his state-senator brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch), and a protective father. The latter indoctrinates his young son in the ways of the streets.

Despite being surrounded by violence and bloodshed, Bulger’s story has moments of tenderness and humanity.

The three major acts of the script compress the narrative into a more manageable size, with the second act in 1981 (when Bulger makes a fatal mistake by trying to corner the Jai Alai gambling market in Florida) and the third in 1985. By this point, the Bulger-Connolly alliance has been so successful in eliminating Whitey’s competitors that the agent can no longer protect him from a determined federal prosecutor (Corey Stoll).

And at each step, Scott Cooper stages riveting setpieces that feel destined for the genre canon, including an unforgettable dinner scene in which Bulger turns a discussion of a “secret” family recipe into a blistering attack on the loyalty of Connolly’s supervisor, John Morris. The insidious cackle Bulger unleashes at the end of that rant is about the closest “Black Mass” ever comes to the grisly gallows humor that has become the lingua franca of the gangster movie in the post- “GoodFellas” era. Still, mostly Depp and Cooper play things in a more understated key.

Johnny Depp gives a much more subdued performance in “Secret Window” than we’ve seen from him in recent years. Compared to his Oscar-nominated role in “Finding Neverland,” Depp’s character in this film is much more reserved and down-to-earth. It’s refreshing to see an actor of his caliber not rely on over-the-top mannerisms and gimmicks to carry a movie.

Johnny Depp gives an electrifying performance as Whitey Bulger in “Black Mass.” He is so deep in the role that we can’t help but be drawn to him, no matter what he does. The violence in the film is sudden and brutal, but it’s nothing compared to the power of Bulger’s gaze.

Taking place in the late ’70s and early ’80s, “Black Mass” is a film that feels true to the period without ever becoming kitschy. The hard-edged elegance of cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi’s 35mm widescreen lensing, reminiscent of Gordon Willis’ work on “Klute” and the “Godfather” movies, further adds to this effect. Compared to his adrenaline-pumping soundtrack for “Mad Max: Fury Road,” Dutch composer/producer Tom Holkenborg (aka Junkie XL) supplies an elegiac orchestral score that perfectly complements the film’s desperate, wintry mood.