Johnny Depp is riveting as Boston crime kingpin Whitey Bulger
Starring Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton and Benedict Cumberbatch
Directed by Scott Cooper
In the crime underworld, there’s nothing lower than a rat—a snitch, a two-timer, an informer who sells his soul to save his skin.
Early in this powerful screen adaptation of the 2001 book by Boston Globe reporters Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill, Irish-American hood “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp) meets with FBI agent John Connelly (Joel Edgerton), who wants Bulger’s help in reeling in some even bigger fish—the Italian Mafia.
Connelly asks Bulger to become an informant. Bulger recoils. “Do you know what I do to rats?” he hisses.
The audience doesn’t, but we’ll soon find out. And if it’s anything like we just saw Bulger do to a guy who displeased him with some sloppy snack-food etiquette, we can guess it’ll be ugly, brutal and swift.
In Boston crime lore, James “Whitey” Bulger was a legend, a local neighborhood kid who became a fearsome underworld kingpin. A career criminal, he was a stone-cold killer who kept his South Boston crew, the Winter Hill Gang, busy with murder, extortion and drug dealing. But he could also be kind to old ladies, a loving father and a doting son.
Black Mass begins in 1975, and shows how Bulger did, indeed, become an informant, creating an unholy alliance that—ironically—expanded his criminal reign by giving him “protection,” and drawing agent Connelly dangerously deep into Bulger’s world. It also complicated things for Connelly’s childhood friend, the Massachusetts state senator (Benedict Cumberbatch) who happened to be Bulger’s younger brother.
Gangsters and crime movies are Hollywood staples, and there are characters and scenes in Black Mass that may indeed remind you of things that came before: The Godfather, Goodfellas, The Departed. But this gangster flick has something unique: Johnny Depp as one of modern history’s most infamous mobsters, reminding us how great he can be when he digs deep into a serious role.
Burying the memories of some of his broader, more flamboyant performances (Capt. Jack Sparrow, Willy Wonka, Edward Scissorhands, Tonto) behind piercing blue contact lenses, a yellowed front tooth, an artificially receding hairline and subtle facial prosthetics, he hones in and practically disappears into the part of the notorious, psychopathic crime boss. You get chills whenever he’s onscreen, especially in close-up, when his eyes can become as cold and menacing as any weapon.
The cast—which also includes Dakota Johnson, Kevin Bacon, Peter Saarsgard, Jesse Pelmons, Rory Cochrane, Corey Stoll, Julianne Nicholson and Adam Scott—is uniformly strong. The stark, sophisticated cinematography, by master lensman Masonobu Takayanagi (Silver Linings Playbook, The Grey, Warrior) basks in the bleak ’70 and ’80s grunge of the film’s Beantown settings and evokes the amoral chill of its tale. The set design captures all the details of the era, from the big American Fords, Lincolns, Dodges, Buicks and Chevys—the rides of choice of the mobsters—to the reel-to-reel recorders used by the Feds. Director Scott Cooper, who previously steered Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart (2009), meticulously juggles the players and pieces of the sprawling, intense, character-driven story that sweeps across a full decade, with a postscript in 1995.
“Southie kids, we went straight from playing cops and robbers on the playground to doin’ it for real on the streets,” says one Bulger’s henchmen on the trajectory that led his boss and associates from tough childhoods in South Boston into careers of crime. That may not have turned out to be the best life choice, but it sure had the makings of one heck of a fine gangster movie, rats and all.
—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine