In Boston in the 1970’s, the name James “Whitey” Bulger was spoken in hushed tones. He was a criminal, kingpin, and convicted killer, but he was also more than that. He was beloved in the community as a Robin Hood type. When he was eventually captured in 2011 after years on the run, Hollywood started to take notice. It was no longer a question of whether or not a movie would be developed based on the life of Whitey Bulger, it was question of when. Now, with Scott Cooper’s new gangster epic Black Mass, we finally have our answer.
Johnny Depp has thrown himself into the role of Bulger, starting with the gray blotchy skin and receding hairline. His strut and “Southie” accent help transform Depp into the sinister crime boss from South Boston. This movie is quite a departure from Depp’s recent roles of the Mad Hatter and Jack Sparrow. It was wonderful to see Depp tear into these aspects of his role with such gusto. All that work allows him to ooze villainy on screen.
You would have a tough time coming up with a better opening line this year than “I’m not a rat.” Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth set the tone for the film in their screenplay, with those words opening the film. It becomes obvious, shortly thereafter, the theme of this movie is loyalty, and how it’s earned and lost.
In a movie chock full of outstanding performances(Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbach, and Kevin Bacon specifically), Depp stands out. His portrayal of a family man, business man, and a dad, was quite amazing. My favorite line that Whitey uttered was towards his seven-year old son “You got in trouble because you punched the kid when your teacher was looking… If you punch when your teacher isn’t looking, then it didn’t happen.” Even in the midst of the nonstop turmoil that is the life of a Boston crime lord, Whitey tries to lead somewhat of a normal family life. As a viewer, you do get this feeling that it’s love a family driving all aspects of this life.
As sensational as Depp’s portrayal of Bulger is in Black Mass, the most crucial part in this film belongs to Joel Edgerton’s role as John Connelly. It was FBI agent John Connelly who brokered the deal between the government and Bulger to help bring down the Italian crime familes in the Boston area. John is the moral center here, and in the beginning he has all the right intentions about this “alliance” with a known crime boss. As the movie continues, we see Connelly become less and less concerned about the morality of the deal and more about the bottom line. At one point we even hear Edgerton utter to a member of Bulger’s inner-circle “It’s business” when referring to the sudden disappearance of an informant set on ratting out Bulger. The sheer influence of Bulger turns a well-intentioned cop into an “unofficial” member of Bulger’s crime family. Connelly serves as a prime example to audience of just the sheer influence that Whitey Bulger had on everyone who was ever involved with him in any capacity. Whitey’s affable nature towards Connelly allows him to justify to himself, that it’s okay to look the other way when he knows that certain people are being “taken out.”
The musical accompaniments only just added to some of the more tense moments in this film. Sometimes, just the littlest of choices made about a music accompaniment can have the biggest impact on the quality of the overall picture. Scott Cooper consistently made good decision after good decision and it will be those decisions that will lead to the success of this picture.
In the end, Scott Cooper’s Black Mass is a tightly-wound crime drama that will engage the audience from the first line to the last moments of Whitey Bulger’s freedom as the FBI swarms in to arrest him. For this film to work, it needed a collection of wonderful performances, and got it in spades. Certainly, the story of this movie will be Depp’s portrayal of Whitey Bulger. A standout performance like his will capture the attention of voters during the award season. As a member of SEFCA (South-Eastern Film Critics Association), I certainly made a mental note to remember this performance for when we vote for our awards in the not too distant future. Will this movie translate into an Oscar moment for Depp? That remains to be seen, but what I do know is that Black Mass is one that you shouldn’t miss this weekend.