Black Mass (2015)

The unholy alliance between the FBI and Whitey Bulger, one of the most notorious gangsters in U.S. history

Johnny Depp’s name is clearly synonymous with that of his kooky transformations as the superstar has portrayed a definitive number of Hollywood icons: the lonely son of an inventor Edward Scissorhands, eccentric genius Willy Wonka and who can forget the frizzy fiery-haired ‘madcap’ Hatter — albeit most of these roles were played under the direction of long-time collaborator Tim Burton. These physical metamorphoses saw Depp buried beneath mounds of eyeliner and makeup while donning wild, multi-colored wigs, with the entertainer boldly embracing his new skin, using this cover-up to drive his expose and create well-rounded ‘characters.’

Well, it comes as no surprise that Depp, in this latest American gangster biopic Black Mass, is yet again working from under a masking, although it’s a different type of silicone as he plays infamous Bostonian James ‘Whitey’ Bulger, a real-life legendary figurehead in the world of felony. While the almost unrecognizable Depp, with an icy, blue-eyed stare and diminishing hairline, makes for an uncanny visage of Whitey Bulger, it’s the actor’s riveting intensity that truly drives the performance home. Exposing Whitey’s inhumane capacity for evil and lack of remorse, Depp establishes a full-bodied portrait of the well-known mobster, highlighting the maniacal crime lord as flawed man.

'Why is the Rum Gone?'
‘Why is the Rum Gone?’

Based on the book titled Black Mass: Whitey Bulger, the FBI, and a Devil’s Deal, a true-to-life account of the FBI’s dealings with Boston’s most notorious gangster, written by former Boston Globe reporters Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill, Black Mass tells the story of James ‘Whitey’ Bulger who, for over a decade — until his incarceration in 2011 — was hunted by the FBI, only surpassed by terrorist Osama Bin Laden at the top of the Bureau’s Most Wanted List.

James ‘Whitey’ Bulger (Johnny Depp), along with his brother William ‘Billy’ Bulger (Benedict Cumberbatch), grew up together with John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) on the streets of South Boston, sharing a ‘Southie’ bond. Some decades later, in the late 1970s, Whitey Bulger and Connolly would meet again. By then — both having explored remarkably divergent paths — Connolly had become a major figure in the FBI’s Boston office while Whitey had grown to be godfather of the Irish Mob. What happened between them, a crooked and corrupt collaboration — which involved the trading of secrets, set up to eliminate a common enemy, a rival Italian Mafia family — would soon spiral out of control. Black Mass documents the drama of this ‘unholy alliance,’ which, for years, allowed Bulger to run his operation with violent impunity, evading law enforcement thanks to his ‘friends’ in the bureau, while escalating his power, through drug dealing, extortion, racketeering indictments and murder, eventually rising to become the most feared criminal figurehead in Boston — even more treacherous than the people he originally helped to bring down — and one of the most deadly gangsters in U.S. history.

'So, how about an Oscar, huh?'
‘So, how about an Oscar, huh?’

Under a layer of finely sculpted facial prosthetics, Johnny Depp spearheads Black Mass with his mesmerizing ferocity as Whitey Bulger, starting out as a small-time crook leading the Winter Hill Gang — a Robin Hood type figure within the Southie neighborhood — to a dangerous crime boss, feared by even his closest friends. Depp, playing a character unlike any he’s ever portrayed before, balances Whitey’s brutality, honor and loyalty, to some extent revealing the human side of a man who’s known as ‘evil incarnate.’ Then we have a first-rate Joel Edgerton, who seems to be having a successful year following his notable work on The Gift (2015), bringing FBI agent John Connolly to life; a guy who, blinded by his own ambition and misplaced devotion, allows Bulger to run amok in the city, shielding Whitey from investigation, wanting to remain in his ‘good books’ ever since being rescued by Whitey in a playground brawl when they were just kids. Edgerton’s rendering of Connolly is perfectly innate and nuanced, capturing the man’s bravado and preen self-confidence along with his vulnerability and broiling weaknesses.

With Black Mass being an ensemble piece, our dynamite leads are aided by a number of strong second tier players. Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game (2014), seamlessly embodies Billy Bulger — Whitey’s younger brother — who rises to become an influential Massachusetts State Senator. Nailing all aspects of the role, from the Boston accent to the way Billy carries himself, Cumberbatch is excellent in exhibiting the character’s stern scholarly intellect and hard-edge approach, implanting that essential and authentic brotherly affinity, which is mirrored nicely by co-star Depp. Likewise, the officials operating within the FBI are just as compelling, particularly Agent John Morris, realized by David Harbour, End of Watch (2012), a man seduced by the deceptive charm of Whitey, eventually becoming a complicit in the ‘sacrilegious’ informant agreement, whilst Kevin Bacon, Mystic River (2003), does a tiptop job as the uncompromising Special Agent Charles McGuire.

New FBI training challenge - listen to Rebecca Black's 'Friday' for 48 hrs.
New FBI training challenge – listen to Rebecca Black’s ‘Friday’ for 48 hrs.

Elsewhere, in the Winter Hill Gang, Rory Cochrane, Argo (2012), stands out as Stephen ‘the Rifleman’ Flemmi, Whitey’s closest confidant and partner in crime — a man who speaks only when necessary, though his lingering facial expressions are worth a thousand words. The female parts, while still integral, are somewhat spear-carrier but provide the heart of the story, giving the film its emotive gravitas. Julianne Nicholson, August: Osage County (2013), plays John Connolly’s wife, Marianne — a scene between Nicholson and Depp stands to be one of the flick’s most unnervingly powerful moments — whereas Dakota Johnson, Fifty Shades of Grey (2015) appears as Lindsey Cyr, the mother of Whitey’s only child, who, being Whitey’s former flame, counterbalances the mob boss’ taciturn and brings out some of his humanity. Even Juno Temple, Horns (2013), makes an impression as the naive Deborah Hussey, Flemmi’s young mistress and stepdaughter, having a questionable relationship with Whitey’s right-hand-man.

With Black Mass, director Scott Cooper, Crazy Heart (2009), once again proves that he is truly an ‘actor’s director,’ pulling top-notch performances out from his competent cast, while steering the narrative along with confidence, filling each frame with striking compositions and methodical camera manoeuvres, perhaps taking stylistic cues from the likes of Martin Scorsese. This aesthetic is further aided by Japanese cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi, Warrior (2011), and Italian production designer Stefania Cella, Maniac (2012), who give the picture its gritty appearance and grimly realistic quality; it’s visually coarse, cold and beautifully twisted. Even the score, provided by Tom Holkenborg, Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) — also known as Junkie XL — brings an uncanny sense of sorrow to this vehemently vicious story. And the film’s violence, which comes in gruesome bursts, is raw and shocking, staged with an uncomfortable sense of triviality, allowing the audience to glimpse the most horrific aspects of each execution, and the way in which Whitey simply shrugs these killings off.

Strictly Criminal
Strictly Criminal

While Black Mass is highly engrossing and brilliantly acted, it does unfortunately come with a few blemishes. First and foremost, with an increasing number of pics cantered around outlawed bandits hitting screens, Black Mass doesn’t really bring anything new to the genre, coming across as yet another slightly by-the-numbers American gangster yarn — it feels a little like a second cousin to The Departed (2006) or Goodfellas (1990), sharing the same DNA — this sense of familiarity being one of the flick’s only let downs. Another minor flaw with Black Mass lies in its narrative arc or absence of, having a lack of interconnectedness or focus, more or less presenting a number of interesting events with the loose thread of Connolly and Bulger’s ‘partnership’ linking them together, using police interrogation footage as a wrap-around tool to push the story forward.

Black Mass, a title carried on from the story’s source material — a term that refers to a parody of the Roman Catholic Mass in worship of Satan — can be attributed to the mockery of the FBI and the justice system itself, its satirical origins are evident in Bulger’s inflammatory crimes and the lives he ended and destroyed, all with blatantly disrespect and disregard for the law. With its brisk pacing and well-rounded cast, Black Mass is no doubt a gripping and evocative piece of cinema; although historians may have several issues with elements of the film as Cooper and his team — drawing from Lehr and O’Neill’s text — take certain creative liberties in order to make Bulger’s story work for the big screen. Make no mistake though, this is Johnny Depp’s film, as he owns the part of James ‘Whitey’ Bulger, making a departure from his child-like personifications and delivering an Oscar-caliber performance; let’s hope the prosthetics-laden Depp gets the credit and recognition he deserves.

4 / 5 – Recommended

Reviewed by S-Littner

Black Mass is released through Roadshow Entertainment Australia