********* 8 out of 10 *********
Director: Scott Cooper
Actors: Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch
Mafia movies, or say gangster movies, are plentiful in Hollywood, and some of them are so extraordinary – like Godfather or Goodfellas – that the bar has been raised pretty high for the genre. Such a movie cannot just have a few actors waving their guns, shouting out curse words, being violent, and get chased around the neighbourhood by the cops, to be deemed good enough for the audience. Black Mass has all that, but thankfully, so much more. It strikes a connection when you are told that it is based on real events and real people, and gradually as the gangster world of South Boston unravels, you sink in deeper in your seat as you are totally hooked to this captivating journey of James “Whitey” Bulger. As for Johnny Depp who has had a horrendous period on-screen since 2011’s Rum Diary, it is fair to say that he has put his best foot forward this time and shown us what we have missed in the last four years.
Black Mass is the story of James “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp) who is a small-time gangster in South Boston, leader of the Winter Hill gang. The movie’s story begins from 1975 when Bulger’s territory is being eyed by the Italian mafia. During this time, another South Boston lad, John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) who has become an FBI agent, returns to his hometown, and aims to get rid of the Italian mafia in that area. This provides Whitey Bulger with an opportunity to grow his own business while having the FBI fight his war with the mafia. Whitey starts making his moves that would make him one of the deadliest gangsters of South Boston, in stark comparison to the path chosen by his brother William Bulger (Benedict Cumberbatch), a powerful senator. A dangerous game has begun which will strain relationships, test loyalty, and lead to a lot of bloodshed on the streets of South Boston.
The 2001 book Black Mass: The True Story of an Unholy Alliance Between the FBI and the Irish Mob by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill forms the basis of the movie. The screenplay by Jez Butterworth (who has worked on the upcoming Spectre as well) and Mark Mallouk is well put together, with the right pacing that keeps the tension alive in almost each scene. Given the long history of Bulger’s activities, the screenplay too would have been pretty extensive, I would think. The movie is in fact said to have been 3-hour long which was then trimmed to close to 2 hours. The editing work is darn good as the scenes flow smoothly, hardly ever getting stretched beyond what is necessary.
Much of the credit for the pacing and intensity of Black Mass needs to go to director Scot Cooper. His previous two flicks – Crazy Heart and Into the Furnace – may have had their moments but you would be forgiven if you haven’t even heard of them. Black Mass, on the other hand, is in a different league altogether giving a good glimpse of the intense drama-action movies that Scott Cooper can work on. He does more than tell the story of a gangster; he adds so many equations into the movie through the varying chemistry between the characters that it spices up the whole film. For example, Whitey Bulger shares only a few scenes with his wife in the film, but those do enough to give an idea on where that relationship stands. Bulger has only one scene with his mother, but that is so beautifully put together that we know instantly how they love each other without having to say it. Little things like these are what Scott Cooper has expertly directed to make Black Mass richer in its composition. Of course, the whole gangster feel to the movie is perfect, the action and drama is intense, along with the I-dunno-who-will-die-next moments which can give you a bit of a jump. Music by Junkie XL is absolutely terrific, and I am loving this guy now, after having been blown away with his work for Mad Max: Fury Road earlier this year.
With a much better movie choice than what he has worked on over the last five years, Johnny Depp had got half of his comeback strategy right. And the other half has now come through with an amazing performance as Whitey Bulger that can send you the chills. Depp has been in his fair share of gangster / mob movies – Blow, Donnie Brasco, Public Enemies – but Black Mass, for me, stands above them all. Depp has immersed himself in the character of Bugler, picking up the right Southie accent, fixing the right body language, managing to display the arrogance of a growing criminal with only his eyes. That half-bald head and the crooked teeth in themselves give a menacing feel to his character but along with it comes Johnny Depp’s intensity which is not easy to describe but difficult to forget once you have seen it. Depp has shown with aplomb what he still has to offer to cinema, and one can only hope, there is a lot more to come!
Joel Edgerton is the other imposing figure in Black Mass. He enjoys a lot of screentime which makes the movie as much about his character, John Connolly, as it is about Whitey Bugler. The character of Connolly changes during the course of the movie in a very subtle manner which has been depicted wonderfully by Edgerton. That shift in ambition comes across through Edgerton’s body language which makes Connolly an interesting figure to keep an eye on. In a briefer but important role is Benedict Cumberbatch as the other Bugley who has entered the realm of politics. Cumberbatch has such a staggering screen presence that every moment he features in a scene is a joy. Confident and smart, and quite contrary to Whitey in a lot of ways, Cumberbatch is a delight to watch and listen to. Black Mass has a whole big group of actors that put up a dedicated and exemplary performance along side the key characters to tightly seal the whole package. There’s a whole bunch of them but especially Kevin Bacon as Connolly’s head in the FBI and Peter Sarsgaard as a small-time gangster are terrific. Then there is Dakota Johnson, Corey Stoll, Adam Scott, David Harbour, Jesse Plemons and Rory Cochrane. Phew, great cast!
Black Mass is an engrossing movie, mirroring a truly interesting piece of event that happened many years back. To have such material to begin with would certainly help, but then to bring it to the big screen in a condensed manner without breaking the flow of events nor trivalising them, that’s another thing altogether. Director Scott Cooper gets the combination perfectly right to make a gangster flick that does not remain stuck to the street fights. It’s the interplay between the characters which makes the movie stand out. And when Johnny Depp finally decides to come to the party, you know it is going to be a lavish one, don’t you!?