At the beginning of Black Mass I was worried that the whole thing was going to be spoiled by Johnny Depp’s makeup, or more particularly the ridiculously blue contact lenses he wears as part of his efforts to make himself look like the real James ‘Whitey’ Bulger. Thankfully, relatively quickly you get used to it, helped by the fact this is the best performance Depp has given in years.
The movie tells the real-life tale of Bulger, who grew up on the tough streets of South Boston before becoming a gangster and the leader of the vicious Winter Hill Gang. His childhood friend, John Connolly (Joes Edgerton), is now an FBI agent, who comes up with a plan he thinks can help the feds take down the Mafia and other parts of Boston’s organised crime. He wants to get Bulger to turn informant, in return for the FBI turning a blind eye to his gang’s activities.
Despite being a ‘rat’ is seen as just about the worst thing you can be, Whitey agrees to the alliance, although he ensures he gets far more from the FBI than he gives. He also very quickly goes against the one thing Connolly said he must not do if the agreement is going to work – not to kill people. Despite this, John becomes increasingly corrupted both by the possibilities of what Whitey could give him, as well as the fact that having grown up in the South Boston world of clan loyalties and the need to be seen as a ‘big man’, his new position puts him amongst the tough guy elite.
Unsurprisingly though, as the Winter Hill Gang’s body count rises and Whitey’s sociopathic tendencies become more evident, the alliance between the gangsters and the FBI becomes increasingly difficult to control.
As mentioned, Depp is extremely good in the central role, really immersing himself in the character of Bulger and showing a grim danger we’ve rarely seen from him before. Unfortunately though, the movie around him is more problematic.
It’s almost as if it was made by people who’d watched an awful lot of gangster movies, and then decided to try and distil all of those together rather than making the film that was best for this story. By doing so, it ends up highlighting its own artifice and constantly makes you question whether it’s revealing any sort of truth at all about the Winter Hill Gang (director Scott Cooper says in the special features he altered many events but says he way trying for a psychological truth) or indeed being as entertaining as it otherwise might have been.
The film is set in a world where everyone barks and shouts everything rather than speaking, and acts like a pastiche of a Scorsese gangster rather than like an actual person. Even the rather geometric and poised filmmaking style ends up at odds with the story, so that rather than a beautiful shot adding to the cinematic feel, it ends up highlighting that nothing about this is real or put together in a plausible way. Maybe I’m wrong and the people were like this (although even some of those portrayed in the movie have said it’s pretty inaccurate), but in its desire to be moody, tense and to find its place in the tradition of the American gangster movie, it feels like a complete fantasy.
It’s a shame for Depp, as this should have been a great reminder that he can be a brilliant actor when he calms down the eccentric tics, but the film is rather like some of Depp’s more over-the-top performances – it’s trying so hard that it’s distracting and makes it tough to suspend your disbelief.
Black Mass is not a terrible movie, but it’s difficult to escape the constant feeling that there’s a much better film about Bulger and his unholy alliance with the FBI out there waiting to be made. It sure looks good though, and that’s really brought out on the Blu-ray. The disc also includes an excellent one-hour documentary about a period in Bulger’s life that the film doesn’t really cover – what he got up to when he became a fugitive and how the authority’s eventually found him.
Overall Verdict: There’s a huge amount of effort been put into Black Mass and it features one of Johnny Depp’s best ever performances, but the movie itself feels more like it’s telling us move gangsters than real ones.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac