"Black Mass" cocked and loaded with killer performances
"Black Mass" sets out to tell the true story of infamous Boston gang leader and FBI informant, James "Whitey" Bulger. A divisive figure in his hometown, Bulger was loved by many as someone who did good for the community while others knew him as a vicious, murderous psychopath. The movie begins in 1975 when Bulger, played convincingly by Johnny Depp, is still just a local street thug and leader of the small-time Winter Hill gang. His brother, Billy Bulger (Benedict Cumberbatch), is a member of the Massachusetts State Senate and his childhood friend, John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), has come back to Boston as a member of the FBI.
Connolly goes to Whitey with a proposal: become an informant for the FBI and help them take down the Mafia and the Winter Hill gang can run their business without interference. While at first being opposed to the idea, Whitey eventually decides that it's just what he needs to destroy his enemies. What ensues is an explosive rise in the breadth and influence of Bulger's operation making him the most powerful gangster in Boston.
The film is clever and witty in its writing, making you laugh out loud at times. Mix this with the suspense of a slasher movie, since everybody spends the whole time doing their best to not get killed by Whitey, and you get an entertaining mixture of sweet and sour.
Scott Cooper, directing his third movie (Out of the Furnace, Crazy Heart), does a good job of setting the scene. The atmosphere is well-crafted and gives you a good feel of the ease with which people can get snuffed out. There is constant tension with Bulger being a spontaneously violent man prone to bouts of paranoia whose friends are as unsafe as his enemies and Cooper does a tremendous job of keeping the audience on edge.
The biggest success of the movie comes from the superb performances of the cast, which has just the right amount of starpower. Depp redeems his last few duds with an incredible performance that will remind everyone why he is a Hollywood heavyweight. His portrayal of Bulger is mesmerizing and terrifying. Flawlessly maintaining the balance between nurturing father, son and big brother and remorseless killer, he's able to polarize the audience the same way the real Bulger did to Boston.
The supporting cast is just as good. The infallible Cumberbatch is stellar as is Bulger. The perfect counterpoint to Whitey, he's subtle and controlled while never reminding you that he's British. Joel Edgerton does a good job giving the audience someone to root against but his performance is easily overshadowed.
The rest of the cast includes the indefatigable Kevin Bacon, Adam Scott (Parks and Recreation), Corey Stoll (House of Cards), David Harbour (The Newsroom) and Dakota Johnson (Fifty Shades of Grey). They all fill their roles well and leave no glaring holes against the other powerful performances. The Boston accents are also done well enough that they don't give the nails-on-a-chalkboard feeling that you'll get from other movies like The De-pah-ted.
The movie does feel formulaic, not doing a lot to set itself apart from other great gangster movies like "Goodfellas," "The Departed" or "Casino," but this isn't much of a problem as long as you're a fan of the genre. It also bogs down at times and I found myself checking my watch near the end.
"Black Mass" gives you a glimpse inside the life of a mass murderer and executes it in an interesting, suspenseful and clever way. The performances alone are worth the price of admission and the story is fascinating. Anyone with a few bucks in their pocket who can stomach a bit of violence should check out this film.