Wisely, Black Mass offers absolutely zero explanation as to why such evil lurks in a dark corner of the human condition. Its best moments are rooted in the hypocrisy of character; a common element of stories featuring murderous characters as protagonists is how coldly they deal out death, despite experiencing great grief and pain upon losing a loved one. Bulger’s advice to his young son (played by Luke Ryan), who got in trouble for striking a classmate, is darkly comic: Next time, don’t punch the offending party while others are looking. After all, “if nobody sees it, it didn’t happen,” he tells the boy at the dinner table, as his mother (played by Dakota Johnson) only mildly protests.
Those familiar with the true story of James “Whitey” Bulger know the boy falls ill and dies. The film suggests the traumatic event inspires Bulger to be more ruthlessly ambitious, and become one of the most infamous crime bosses in U.S. history. As Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth‘s screenplay – based on nonfiction accounts by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill – depicts it, the boy’s passing dovetails with an opportunity for the gangster to rule the Boston underworld.
Bulger’s old friend FBI Agent John Connolly (played by Joel Edgerton) is tasked with wiping out the city’s north-side Italian mafia. Connolly uses the opportunity to utilize Bulger as an informant, a smokescreen protecting the crook’s operation. As the Italian operation crumbles, Bulger fills the void, upgrading from theft and gambling to drugs and guns.
The film spends considerable time with Connolly, who obfuscates justice and wriggles out of his boss’ (Kevin Bacon) grip, trumpeting Bulger as playing a key part in their success taking down the Italians. Edgerton is strong in the role, understating the character’s loathsome, slippery nature; he and Depp justify the picture’s existence, their engrossing performances offsetting other, less remarkable ones… particularly Whitey’s brother Billy (an underused, miscast. and underwhelming Benedict Cumberbatch), a politician who served in both the Massachusetts Senate and House of Representatives.
The Bottom Line:
Overall, Black Mass is a fine example of the classic gangster/crime drama. Depp undergoes an incredible character transformation and performance, with a mostly impressive supporting cast (again, except for Cumberbatch). About the only problems it faces is that the story tends to drag a bit at times. This particular performance may have very well punched Depp’s ticket to the Oscars. Highly recommended for anyone who enjoys crime/gangster films, or a good suspenseful drama. — 8.0/10
-Nerd Nation Staff