In the 1970s and 80s James “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp) became one of the biggest crime lords that Boston has ever seen. Bulger seemingly worked with the FBI to get rid of the Italian Mafia on the north side of the city, before expanding his operation from his native South Boston – or Southie – into the rest of the city. Scott Cooper’s film examines the career of the infamous Irish-American mobster and his inevitable fall from power.
It seems like a long time since Johnny Depp has played a role that was not either a throwback cameo [21 Jump Street] or a caricature of a character, in an action adventure flick [Pirates of the Caribbean, Dark Shadows, Into the Woods]. Black Mass throws the actor square into the realm of drama once more, but the trouble is that while Depp manages the lines and to feel intimidating now and again, it does feel as though he is in a different film to everyone else; he is still over the top and still has all the ticks and mannerisms he has carried through the past number of films in his career. It is not that this is a bad performance, but it is still a Johnny Depp performance; the character takes a back seat. AS well as this, Depp really has nowhere to go with the character, since he doesn’t really go through any changes in the film. This is perhaps unsurprising, but it does lead to a disconnect.
The rest of the cast is made up of stellar names; Benedict Cumberbatch, Peter Sarsgaard, Kevin Bacon, Corey Stoll, Joel Edgerton, Dakota Johnson and Jesse Plemons all turn up at various stages of the film, with Juno Temple having a small role and easily stealing both scenes she appears in. Plemons is expanding his repertoire and quickly establishing himself as a young actor to watch; there something reminiscent of John C. Reilly’s skill at playing the everyman in his performance, and the rest of the cast gel well together, making the film feel coherent and engaged. It is only Depp’s performance that feels slightly out of place here.
Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth’s screenplay – based on the book “Black Mass: The True Story of an Unholy Alliance Between the FBI and the Irish Mob” by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill – frames the film through the confessions and testimonies given by Bulger’s friends and accomplices once they finally turn on him. This means the film is told almost entirely through flashback, but this device lends weight to the story, even though it does give away the fact that all does not end well for the Winter Hill Gang. As well as this, there are times when the heart of the story – the fact that the FBI accidentally enabled Bulger into becoming as powerful as he was – becomes confused between all the back and forth, and the shenanigans happening in Florida as well as Boston. As well as this, Black Mass cannot help but feel familiar as so many on screen characters have been based on this real life mobster – including Frank Costello in The Departed – but the story is well crafted for this to be a side note, and not the entire feel of the film.
Director Scott Cooper seems to have set out to make a decent crime thriller, based on a true story, and has done just that. Although the story becomes a little too twisty, and the running time means the energy of the film quickly fades, Black Mass is an engaging thriller, made even stronger by the performances from the supporting cast. Tighter pacing and a stronger hand with Depp could have made the film truly great.
In all, Black Mass is an engaging story that is lost a little in some messy pacing, writing and directing. Johnny Depp almost shakes off the mantle of caricature actor that he has gained over the last number of years – even though he doesn’t really have much room to grow in the film – but the supporting cast are strong and engaging in their roles. A shorter running time and some better pacing would have made Black Mass truly great; as it stands, this is a decent crime thriller that gets a little lost as it unfolds.