James “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp) is a violent mobster that runs most of the crime in South Boston. His brother William (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a state senator with no connection to his brother’s criminal doings. FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) grew up with the Bulger brothers in the same low income project. Whitey even saved Connolly when he was getting beat up by a gang of neighborhood boys. Now stationed in the Boston office, Connolly believes he can use Whitey as an informant to get valuable information about the Angiulo Brothers, a powerful crime family with ties to the mafia. Connolly approaches William hoping he will talk to Whitey on his behalf. Initially reluctant, William does mention Connolly to Whitey. When they meet, Whitey is resistant to the idea of helping the FBI but figures he can use them to take out his rivals in the Italian mob. Connolly promises Whitey his gang will have a wide berth with the FBI as long as they aren’t involved with drugs and don’t kill anyone. Whitey provides the location of the Angiulo Brothers headquarters and the FBI plants listening devices to gather intelligence. Whitey then uses what is essentially protection from the FBI to expand his operations and fill the vacuum left by the dismantling of the Italian mob. As time goes by Connolly’s boss Charles McGuire (Kevin Bacon) and his assistant Robert Fitzpatrick (Adam Scott) notice much of the information attributed to Bulger is actually copied from reports given by other informants. Connolly, who never had any real control over Bulger, is actually giving the mobster information that is leading to the deaths of any FBI informant that gives the agency dirt on Bulger. Connolly’s life is spinning out of control and both Bulger and the FBI are putting pressure on him to deliver results.
Real life crime dramas, or those that feel like real life, have a special place in my heart. Watching the events of “The Godfather” or “GoodFellas” play out, getting to know the characters, seeing them enter into a life of crime believing it to be easily manageable and then finding out it is all consuming and the toll it takes on their relationships and sanity is, if done well, absolutely fascinating. 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, Johnny Depp stars in “Black Mass” as James “Whitey” Bulger, the eye of the hurricane, the center of calm surrounded by chaos and destruction. While Bulger doesn’t mind getting his hands dirty from time to time, he leaves most of the death dealing to his associates. Bulger maintains an air of control and absolute knowledge, instilling fear in his underlings by making those he suspects of disloyalty disappear from the face of the Earth. Bulger is never to be questioned, teased, threatened or shown disrespect under threat of death. Depp is consumed by the visage of Bulger, displacing any resemblance to Capt. Jack Sparrow and Charlie Mortdecai and Tonto and Willy Wonka. This is not a man to be trifled with. This is evil with thinning hair and scary blue eyes. This may be the best character work in Depp’s career and he may be up for an Oscar.
“Black Mass” lives and dies on Depp’s performance and the film has plenty of health to spare. The rest of the cast also pumps life into the rest of the characters. Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Kevin Bacon, Adam Scott and, in smaller roles, Julianne Nicholson, Dakota Johnson, Rory Cochrane and others flesh out parts with quality acting work despite limited screen time. The one scene Depp has with Connolly’s wife, played by Nicholson, could have been considered a bit of throw away business; however, the tension and implied threat by Bulger towards his FBI handler’s wife is so thick and menacing, it sticks out as a highlight of a film filled with memorable scenes.
Not all the best parts involve violence and threats of violence. Depp’s Bulger is a doting father in his own way. He has a son with Lindsey Cyr played by Dakota Johnson. He gives the boy some godfatherly advice about handling a situation privately. After all, if no one sees you do something, it didn’t happen. Bulger’s gentleness extends to his neighbors in South Boston, helping an elderly woman get her groceries inside her home and telling his thugs to make sure she has everything she needs. He also has a playful relationship with his mother, letting her win a few hands of Gin while sweetly teasing her about cheating. These moments of normalcy provide sharp contrast and welcome relief from the violence that permeates Bulger’s business dealings.
The entire film is a fascinating look at how sometimes law enforcement enters uneasy alliances with criminals. While Bulger did give the FBI some information that helped bust up the local Mafia, the film says he used his relationship with his former neighbor and now FBI agent to better his own criminal business. The story of how law enforcers and law breakers can make the line between them disappear is certainly troubling but it also creates a myriad of emotional conflicts and ethical compromises that “Black Mass” uses to turn the good guys into questionable characters and the bad guys into borderline heroes. While the story is fairly simple and easy to follow it weaves a complicated tapestry of loyalty and lawlessness and how one can lead to the other.
“Black Mass” is rated R for brutal violence, language throughout, some sexual references and brief drug use. There are numerous on-screen killings including strangulation, multiple gunshot wounds to the body and head shots as well as a couple of bloody on-screen beatings. There is one slang reference to oral sex as well as a slur calling someone a homosexual. There is a brief scene of a character snorting cocaine. Foul language is common throughout the film.
Johnny Depp had been a on a bit of a losing streak recently with less than successful films such as “The Lone Ranger,” “Transcendence,” and “Mortdecai” all losing money (and in the case of “The Lone Ranger,” a great deal of money). While he can always depend on the next installment of the “Pirates of the Caribbean,” films, due in 2017, to do well at the box office, Depp probably also needs a film that is a critical success to maintain his status as one of the most in demand actors in the world. “Black Mass” should be the critical darling that allows him to maintain his popularity among film executives. Its relatively low production budget of $53 million probably means a film that will turn a profit after worldwide distribution. This is all good news for Depp; but it also works out well for moviegoers since “Black Mass” is a riveting experience best seen on a big screen. And unlike most other releases at the local multiplex it’s a film you will think about after leaving the theatre.