Anyone who admires great performances will want to see Black Mass, if only to savor the work of Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, and Benedict Cumberbatch in the leading roles. Together they offer a tour de force that shouldn’t be missed.
Having seen Joe Berlinger’s compelling documentary Whitey: The United States of America vs. James J. Bulger last year, I feared that I’d be comparing every incident with the true-life account, but that was never an issue for me. On the contrary, director Scott Cooper and his screenwriters (Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth) take us inside the story and behind closed doors to dramatize what could only be spoken about in the documentary.
In terms of movie fodder, and the gangster-movie genre, Black Mass reminds us that truth is not only stranger than fiction: it can be much more outlandish. Only the most fanciful writer would dream up a saga where a ruthless Boston crime lord literally gets away with murder because he maintains a secret alliance with the FBI.
Joel Edgerton does a great job as John Connolly, the slick, ambitious Federal agent who persuades Bulger that serving as an informant for the government will accrue to his benefit and then does an elaborate tap-dance to convince his superiors—over a span of years—that he’s right, even when the results become openly embarrassing. Aussie Edgerton is colorful and credible as a Bostonian, matched by Cumberbatch, a talented Brit who also scores as Bulger’s brother, a respected state senator who keeps an arm’s length from his notorious sibling. Their Boston accents and attitudes are right on the money.
From the outset, Black Mass has all the ingredients of a great gangster saga: rivalries, schemes, betrayals, and bursts of violence. Towering over the proceedings is Johnny Depp, who brings his A-game to the role of Bulger, including a major physical transformation. We see first-hand what he’s capable of as a devoted family man, a resident of the tight-knit neighborhood known as Southie, and a leader who brooks no signs or even hints of disloyalty. If others rule with an iron fist, he uses a sledgehammer—but dispatches his flunkies to wield it.
Numerous filmmakers have trod this Boston turf with considerable success in recent years but Black Mass never feels shopworn. Cooper gets the most from his locations and a strong ensemble led by Kevin Bacon, Peter Sarsgaard, David Harbour, Dakota Johnson, Rory Cochrane, Jesse Plemons, W. Earl Brown, Adam Scott, Julianne Nicholson, and Corey Stoll.
Black Mass may not break new ground in the gangster genre but it tells its story with vigor and panache—and offers juicy parts to some of the most talented actors working today.