Tim Burton must feel pretty useless right about now.
Whitey Bulger (Johnny Depp) was one of the most notorious criminals in history. He ran South Boston by his rules, which, for the most part, consisted of a lot of drugs, booze, women, and murder – actually, there was lots and lots of murder involved. But the reason why Whitey was so able to get away with all of his criminal escapades was because he aligned himself with an old pal of his, John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), who just so happened to be part of the FBI. Because Connolly looked up to and adored Bulger, he gets the FBI to strike some sort of deal where they’ll take down all of Bulger’s enemies (the Italian mob, local kingpins, etc.), and Bulger himself will practically be able to get away with anything he wants. Nobody quite catches on to this fact just yet, but eventually, the blood-shed, the drugs, and the murders become too much and too frequent to the point of where people start to notice that something is awry with this deal between Bulger and the FBI. And it all comes down to Connolly and Bulger’s relationship; one that will ruin both of their lives forever.
Finally, after a few months of sitting through some okay-to-good movies, it seems like the time has come for extraordinarily great movies to start hitting the cinemaplexes. While I am very tempted to say “Oscar season is upon us”, my better-half doesn’t want to because that seems to have recently given off a negative connotation. Rather than just being about good movies that deserve our attention, Oscar season is more about how studios finagle and manipulate their way into getting more votes and notice from the Academy, so that they can make more money, become more successful, and continue to do so for as long as they want to. And while Black Mass may not be a total Oscar-bait-y movie, through and through, it’s still a sign of good things to, hopefully, come in the next few or so months.
Oh yeah, and Johnny Depp’s pretty good in this too.
In fact, he’s really good. As good as he’s been since he started hanging around with Tim Burton. And while you could make the case that, yes, Depp is once again playing a notorious gangster (like he did in Public Enemies as John Dillinger not too long ago), there’s still something that feels different about this portrayal here that makes it seem like we’re not watching Johnny Depp playing “Johnny Depp“. But instead, we’re watching Johnny Depp play Whitey Bulger, a ruthless, cut-throat, mean and sadistic crime-boss that intimidated practically everyone around him, that nobody ever dared to step up to him.
Sure, some of that has to do with the sometimes-distracting make-up job that’s trying so desperately hard to make Depp have some sort of similarities to the infamous Bulger, but Depp is so dedicated to making a character, that it works throughout the whole movie. He’s one-note for sure, but he’s so scary and terrifying to watch, even as he holds conversations that seem to go south as soon as somebody steps slightly out-of-line, that it’s hard to take your eyes off of him. Which is an all the more impressive feat when you consider that Black Mass isn’t exactly a Depp-centerpiece, as much as it’s an ensemble piece, where everybody gets their chance to show up, do some solid work, and give Depp a run for his money.
Depp may still own the movie at the end the day, but it’s an effort that’s compelling.
This is mostly evident with Joel Edgerton’s performance as John Connolly, a close friend and confidante of Bulger who, after awhile, you begin to feel bad for. Though Connolly is dirty, corrupt, and tries to avoid every idea that Bulger may get incriminated for all the wrongdoings he’s committed, there’s still something interesting to view and dissect. That Connolly looks up to Bulger more as a big brother, rather than a pal, makes it all the more clear that there’s something inherently wrong with Connolly’s own psyche, but he doesn’t own up to the fact and watching Edgerton play around with this character, showing-off all sorts of shadings, is enjoyable. It may not be as showy of a performance as Depp’s, but there’s something that sits with you long after that puts Black Mass over the hill of being more than just “an entertaining gangster pic”.
Which is to say that, yes, Black Mass is in fact, an entertaining gangster pic. Director Scott Cooper and co-writers Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth clearly have a love for these kinds of raw, gritty, and violent gangster flicks in the same vein as Scorsese and do well in constructing a movie that’s both fun, as well as emotional. While it’s hard to really get attached to any character in particular, there’s still interesting anecdotes made about certain character’s and their lives that make it more of an interesting watch.
For instance, though she only gets a few or so scenes, Julianne Nicholson is spectacular as Connolly’s wife who, from the very beginning, doesn’t like a single thing about Whitey Bulger. While she knows he’s helping her hubby out in getting a nice promotion, she also knows that the dude’s bad news; so much so, that she won’t even bother to sit at the same dinner table as him, let alone socialize with him at a party at her own house. Though this role is clearly limited to “disapproving wife”, there’s a lot more to her in the way Nicholson portrays her that makes us want to see a whole movie dedicated to just her.
Same goes for a lot of other characters here, as well.
Benedict Cumberbatch’s Bill Bulger, Whitey’s bro, is a mayor who knows that his brother is up to no good, but is so willing to push it off to the side if that means he gets to have more power, politically speaking, that it’s actually scary; Peter Sarsgaard plays a drug-dealer that gets in on Whitey’s dealings and, although a total mess, still seems like a real guy who is easy to care for; Dakota Johnson only gets a few scenes as Whitey’s wife, but sets the basis for what Whitey himself will live by until the day he died; and of course, there’s the likes of Jesse Plemons, Kevin Bacon, Adam Scott, Corey Stoll, W. Earl Brown, Juno Temple, and a very emotional Rory Cochrane, that all add more layers to their characters, as well as the movie itself.
Though it doesn’t make the movie great, or better yet, perfect, it still makes it a highly enjoyable, mainstream gangster pic that has more to it than meets the eyes.
Or should I say, more than just bullets that meets the eyes.
Consensus: Led by a breathtaking performance from Johnny Depp, Black Mass benefits from its stacked-ensemble, but also has plenty more to say about its characters than just guns, blood, and crime.
8 / 10