Black Mass: Review

Written by: Mark Duque

Film | Oct 27, 2015

Black Mass crime film Johnny Depp Scott Cooper

James "Whitey" Bulger's almost Shakespearean story came to an end when he was caught by an FBI task force dedicated to his capture. He had been on the FBI's Most Wanted Fugitives for 12 years, and was caught in 2011.

And yet many knew little about Bulger, his crimes and operations. With Scott Cooper's Black Mass, we get a glimpse of the mind of a highly sophisticated individual, who had managed to manipulate the FBI into taking down his own rivals, and at the same time, gain immunity before his biggest downfall.

Black Mass is based on a true story of the Winter Hill Gang of Boston and their operations during the '80s. At the helm is the Machiavellian psychopath James Bulger portrayed by Johnny Depp. Before you start imagining puffy wigs and funny accents, let me stop you right there: know that Black Mass is not your typical Johnny Depp movie. Sure, there are still the wigs and the funny accents but they're targeted to the consumption of mature movie goers. 

Johnny Depp is no stranger to crime movies. He has appeared in Donnie Brasco, an undercover FBI agent who had infiltrated the Bonanno crime family in New York. He was especially charismatic and suave as John Dillinger in Public Enemies. And he once was a teen idol in the '80s police procedural series, 21 Jump Street, as an undercover police officer. So, it's not surprising now that Depp has returned to a crime-slash-mob film such as Black Mass. You wouldn't even recognize him in the first few shots unlike his previous movies where his characters just scream "Johnny Depp." 

Complimenting his Hopkin-esque performance is Joel Edgerton playing John Connolly, Bulger's childhood friend and "ally" in the FBI, who feels that he owes Bulger, growing up together in tough times. Benedict Cumberbatch plays the charismatic William Bulger, Whitey's brother.

The film works to bring out the theatrical excellence from the actors. It removes all the preconceived character roles from the actors and throws them into new waters to swim in. This may be attributed to Cooper being an actor himself, as he chooses to put the spotlight on the performance rather than the plot. Though Benedict Cumberbatch's American accent felt artificial at first, it eventually grows on you and proves to us how flexible of an actor he really is. The dialogue fluidly blends into the plot, as mere conversations turn into narratives and you just feel satisfied when it pans back to a dinner table, reminding you that it's just two blokes talking about steak.

Though even with the stellar performances, there's no major conflict in the plot. Majority of the intense moments of the film comes from Bulger's interactions with people. There wasn't a "good guy" to clash with Bulger's psychopathic rampage, not even Benedict Cumberbatch's character who turns a blind eye to his brother's affairs. There wasn't anyone who was in the opposite side of the fence trying to stop Bulger's operations, especially since the FBI agent who is in charge of his case is working with Bulger. Fred Wyshak, played by Corey Stoll, came into the movie a little further down the road but by that time, there wasn't enough screen time to develop his character and create tension between him and the empire Bulger and Connolly built.

Black Mass is not a date movie as the cast would lead you to believe. It's a throwback to the old American crime films and a good throwback at that. Scott Cooper took notes from Martin Scorsese and gave us an intense and almost humanizing film about America's most notorious criminal. Though it might have benefited from an extra few minutes to develop the last half of the film, it doesn't diminish the fact that this is Johnny Depp's comeback movie and everyone else's proof of flexibility. Bulger's story just proves Einstein's infamous line "The world is a dangerous place to live, not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don't do anything about it."

About the author: Mark Duque

Multimedia Editor. Mark is an avid player of games that his friends don't play. Happily in a relationship with a unicorn. Game development hobbyist and corporate art monkey by trade.

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