A film review by Craig J. Koban September 23, 2015

RANK: 21


2015, R, 122 mins.


Johnny Depp as Whitey Bulger  /  Joel Edgerton as John Connolly  /  Benedict Cumberbatch as Bill Bulger  /  Dakota Johnson as Lindsey Cyr  /  Kevin Bacon as Charles McGuire  /  Jesse Plemons as Kevin Weeks  /  Corey Stoll as Fred Wyshak  /  Peter Sarsgaard as Brian Halloran  /  Juno Temple as Deborah Hussey  /  Adam Scott as Robert Fitzpatrick  /  Julianne Nicholson as Marianne Connolly  /  Rory Cochrane as Steve Flemmi  /  Jamie Donnelly as Mrs. Cody

Directed by Scott Cooper  /  Written by Jez Butterworth and Mark Mallouk

It has been said that BLACK MASS isn’t as flashy and stylish as the finest of mob genre films from the likes of Martin Scorsese.  Nor is it really trying to be.  

Director Scott Cooper (helmer of the recent and terribly underrated OUT OF THE FURNACE) certainly plays with many of the mobster cinematic troupes throughout BLACK MASS, but his film is not meant to be ostentatiously sprawling and visually opulent.  His film is purposely more low key, understated, and nuanced in its chronicling of one of the most infamously dangerous crime bosses in Boston’s history.  Cooper tackles all of the compelling conundrums of his main subject matter while delivering a sober and intimate look at the ties between the mob and the U.S. government.  In a way, BLACK MASS is looser, less elegantly staged, and more grippingly harsh than classical takes on the genre, which is ultimately to its benefit.  

The mastermind criminal in question was James “Whitey” Bulger, whom for years ran the tightly knit South Boston Irish mob ring known as the Winter Hill Gang.  From the mid-1970’s through the mid-1980’s Whitey and his crew waged war on the streets with just about any target big or small.  When all was said and done, U.S. prosecutors indicted Whitey for 19 murders based on testimony from some in his inner circle that turned snitch (even if they would never refer to themselves with that moniker).  Fascinatingly, and well before his capture, Whitey served as an informant for the FBI (a claim he denies) in exchange for the Bureau ostensibly “ignoring” his criminal operations altogether (Whitey gave secrets regarding the inner workings of the local Boston Italian crime families – his enemies – and the FBI, in turn, left Whitey alone).  By 1997, though, the New England press exposed Whitey's ties with the government, which embarrassed the Bureau and caused Whitey to go on the run for years.  He would go on to be on FBI’s list of the ten most wanted fugitives.  He miraculously evaded capture for 16 years until the law finally caught up with him. 



Based on 2001's BLACK MASS: THE TRUE STORY OF AN UNHOLY ALLIANCE BETWEEN THE FBI AND THE IRISH MOB by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill, BLACK MASS covers most of the key events in Whitey’s criminal activities between 1975 and 1995, told with a series vignettes of Whitey's associates testifying against him in the “present” alongside chronological flashbacks sprinkled throughout the story to give a larger impression of his whole operation.  Thankfully, Cooper doesn't waste too much time with heavy-handed expositional nonsense and instead thrusts us right into the thick of things with Whitey (Johnny Depp) as the leader of the aforementioned South Boston gang in the 70’s.   Whitey was a figure that inspired instant fear in his enemies (he was, after all, a vile and maliciously hot headed kingpin that was prone to random killings and other acts of brutal comeuppance against his enemies), but many naïve Boston residents also considered him to be quite gregarious, as they were not privy to his nefarious ways.  Even though he did publicly do time in Alcatraz, many elderly neighborhood residents held Whitey in fairly high regard.  The families of those that he put in body bags thought differently. 

Whitey tried to carve out a distinct niche for himself in South Boston, but his temperamental ways garnered too much attention from the larger and more deadly Italian mob, which lead to a rather large bullseye being painted on his back.  Fate would step in for Whitey in the form of former childhood pal John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), now an ambitious minded FBI agent that wants to stop the Italian crime rings once and for all.  John grew up with both Whitey and his politician brother (Benedict Cumberbatch), and hopes that his past ties with the two will help him form a mutually reciprocal alliance between the government and Whitey.  Initially, the union appears to work out, despite the reluctance and suspicions of Connolly’s superiors, but as Whitey’s power and reign of terror on Boston grows over the years the FBI begins to bare down hard on both Whitey and Connolly. 

If anything, BLACK MASS exists as a performance showpiece for Johnny Depp, and it’s been an awfully long time since I’ve seen the actor move away from his more eccentric and outlandishly quirky character roles and into some more dramatically meaty.  Despite makeup appliances that are simultaneously eerie and a bit distracting, Depp fully embodies and immerses himself in this nightmarishly brutal human being.  Part of the hypnotic allure of Whitney in this film is how Depp manages to evoke a portrait of pure villainy while relaying a man that was enamored with his own stature as a neighborhood Robin Hood figure of good will.  With piercing blue eyes, receding hairline, and a vocal tenor that instantly makes one feel twitchy and uncomfortable, Depp’s tour de force performance here reminds us of the type of empowered and chameleon-like actor he’s capable of being when not playing kooky pirates and other endearingly oddball misfits.  That, and Depp wisely understands to not play Whitey up as a crude mobster caricature: He relays why Whitey was a freakish force of intimidating aggression while showing him as an enigmatic “Southie” persona that inspired devotion and worship in some.  Depp has not been this magnetic and captivating in a film in years. 

Depp gets solid supporting performances that compliments him throughout BLACK MASS.  Joel Edgerton (so resoundingly fine in the recent and criminally little seen THE GIFT) arguably has the trickiest role in the film in the sense that he’s playing a notorious weasel that conspires to cover up Whitey’s activities with his bosses, but nevertheless feels that he’s a righteous law man in doing so for the greater good.  Intriguingly, Connolly is as disturbing of a threat in the film as Whitey if one considers the whole duplicitous nature of this well-meaning, but unavoidably crooked soul.  Rory Cochrane is quietly menacing as Whitey’s longtime right-hand man that slowly begins to feel that is employer is mentally unraveling.  Cumberbatch is reliably empowered playing Whitey’s brother that loves his sibling, but truly wishes to distance himself from him in hopes of not subverting his own political aspirations.  Peter Sarsgaard shows up late in the film in a very brief, but exhilarating turn as a deeply paranoid cokehead that’s in the wrong place at the wrong time in his life in terms of his dealings with Whitey.   

Cooper, alongside cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi, creates a dark, bleak, monotoned, and oppressive looking Boston environments that only serves to foster and support the immoral ways of many of its characters.  BLACK MASS is refreshingly unglamorized as far as mob films go.  It doesn’t have the epic sweep and stature of more noteworthy past examples; Cooper is more interested in exploring the seedy underbelly of character motivations than he is in making an elegant looking film.  This slow-burn and under the radar stylistic approach allows viewers to place themselves squarely within the complex web of relationships that Whitey found himself in while, at the same time, extrapolating what made Whitey (and, to an extent, Connolly) endlessly lust for power and control over others.  There is a theme of displaced loyalty that permeates BLACK MASS, hammered home in one of the film’s most masterfully executed scenes that takes place during one seemingly nonchalant dinner at Connolly’s home.  Whitey, Connolly, and one of his FBI pals talk about how great their steaks were, during which time the agent says it’s a family secret.  At the polite insistence of Whitey, the agent easily gives up the sauce’s recipe without a care in the world.  Whitey then engages in a haunting dissection of this man’s larger trustworthiness right at the dinner table: If he’s able to cough up a multi-generational family secret, then would he do the same for against Whitey to the Feds?  Depp commands this scene with a calm spoken predatory intensity that’s truly unnerving. 

If BLACK MASS were to have any faults then perhaps it would be in the area of its introduction of a multitude of characters (far too many to mention) that the screenplay kind of ignores and then reverts back to when necessary.  There’s perhaps too much going on in terms of narrative bloat in the film, leaving BLACK MASS feeling like it could have benefited from an extra 20 minutes of so of running time.  That, and key aspects of the film draws unavoidable comparisons to Scorsese’s THE DEPARTED, a more notable and frankly better portrait of Boston-centric crime.  Nevertheless, Cooper excels at meticulously crafting a more cerebral and sobering take on the mob genre, one that places Whitey’s heinous criminal deeds front and center while juxtaposing them with the equally scandalous acts of the FBI that swept them under the table.  BLACK MASS is uncompromisingly austere in its approach towards handling its fact-based story.  Combining that with a fully reenergized and hypnotically enthralling Johnny Depp confidently leading the charge and you’re left with an absorbing and tension-filled gangster picture that will linger with you well after seeing it. 

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