Scott Coopers Black Mass has been heavily labelled as Johnny Depp’s big comeback, although I don’t think he went that far away as everyone is making out. A career as productive as Depp’s he is bound to have some dry spells (The Lone Ranger) . However, in Black Mass, Depp successfully carries this big, brash horribly watchable true-life crime drama which has valid insights into the political roots of 1970’s Boston gangsterism.
Depp plays Irish-American Boston wise guy James “Whitey” Bulger, leader of The Winter Hill Gang who’s murderous, racketeering and other criminal activities heyday was in the late 1970’s. With his slicked back hair and lizard blue eyes, Depp’s Bulger is a fully paid up sociopath.
Politically supported by his Massachusetts State Senator brother, Billy Bulger, is played smugly by Benedict Cumberpatch who adopts the ‘cat-that-got-the-cream’ gleefully. Billy can only really be described as the political wing of Whitey’s organisation.
Conveniently, Whitey’s best friend is John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) who is an ambitious FBI agent who gives Whitey immunity of prosecution is exchange for valuable intel regarding the Italian Mob. But as murder, drugs and IRA weapon smuggling become a federal embarrassment, Whitey soon becomes more of a liability than an asset, his closeness to Connolly brings the Bureau into despair and disrepute.
Edgerton steals the show for me, with his bullish bravado and walking that ever so thin line between police and criminality, when watching his performance you know what his fate will hold without having any prior knowledge to the real life outcome. You see his character transform from ambitious FBI federal agent to thugish, wife neglecting traitor.
Yet the talented females of the film such as Juno Temple, Dakota Johnson and Julianne Nicolson are completely sidelines by the boy’s own affairs which really didn’t sit right with me. I felt that it left little room for high calibre female input, disappointingly.
Depp is barely recognisable with his prosthetic nose, artificial receding hairline, replacement eyebrows, fake rotting teeth and a topcoat of sickly green make-up. All this artificial work felt unnecessary, perhaps it was to enhance the evilness of Whitey and his monstrous activities yet I found it more distracting, I kept wondering whether his nose was going to fall off in all his close-ups. Take Jack Nicolson in The Departed, his character was heavily influenced by Whitey Bulger, yet all he inherited was slicked back hair and a strong goatee.
In all fairness, Depp commits to the character very well and truthfully that you can envision how truly evil Whitey was, I felt no likability towards him. Compared to Tom Hardy’s portrayal of The Cray Twins in Legends, where I couldn’t help like and root for them. There is no good in sociopath Whitey Bulger.
All in all Scott Coopers has done a good job at portraying the true grittiness and criminal underbelly of Boston in the late 70’s and is heavily complimented by a colourful supporting ensemble from Kevin Bacon, Peter Saarsguard and Corey Stoll.