ByBenjamin Marlatt, writer at

In 1970’s South Boston, FBI Agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), after receiving hesitant permission from the bureau, convinces Irish mobster James “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp), who he’s known since his childhood, to collaborate with the FBI as an informant against a common enemy they both share – the Italian mob. After forming their unholy alliance, Whitey’s power grows as his the information he provides the Feds earns him a “get out of jail free card” to expand his ruthless empire.

The story of James “Whitey” Bulger (who was the inspiration used for Jack Nicholson’s Frank Costello in Martin Scorsese’s The Departed) seems like one that is too crazy to be true, but what makes it so crazy is that it actually happened. One of the most notorious crime bosses in the history of America, Bulger ruled Southie from the mid-’70s to the mid-’90s until the Feds closed in on his operation, forcing him to flee the state. To put his notoriety into perspective, he was ranked second only to Osama bin Laden on the Most Wanted Fugitives list for years, until he was finally caught just a few years ago in 2011.

In 2013, Out of 32 counts of murder, racketeering, money laundering, extortion, weapons charges, Bulger would be found guilty of 31 counts and sentenced to two consecutive life terms plus five years.

Though he was able to evade the authorities for so many years after his reign, it’s no surprise that what helped him get away with murder, literally, back during the height of his power was his infamous alliance with the FBI, who were trying to nail the Italian mob. In return for his information on the Italians, the Feds, as well as his Massachusetts state senator brother Billy, turned a blind eye to his own Irish mob organization known as the Winter Hill Gang.

Obviously, you could do a trilogy of films chronicling Bulger’s life. Aside from the obligatory “What happened to them?” coda that tags the end of most biopics, director Scott Cooper sticks mainly to Bulger’s rise to power in Southie and his dubious alliance with the FBI (his trials have most recently been documented in the 2014 documentary Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger which is streaming on Netflix). At only 2 hours, Black Mass is practically a 30-minute TV show as far as most biopic running times go, and the film would’ve benefited from another half-hour of additional insight. Smaller characters come and go without much fleshing out, and given that this film deals with Bulger in the midst of his Southie rule, we’re not given much about drove him to become the heinous monster we see onscreen.

That said, Black Mass is far from a letdown, and proves to be a gripping look at a deal with the Devil destined to spiral out of control. Most welcoming, though, is that it’s a wonderful return to form for Johnny Depp who gives by far his best performance since 2004’s Finding Neverland.

Much criticism is being made of the fact that this film lacks a central protagonist. That’s the cross gangster films have to bear. Aside from The Untouchables (Kevin Costner’s Eliot Ness), The Departed (Leonardo DiCaprio’s Billy Costigan) and Depp’s own Donnie Brasco, not many of the best gangster films have leading protagonists. I mean, who exactly were the protagonists in The Godfather II and Goodfellas? Two great movies, mind you; in fact, two of the greatest films ever made, but Michael Corleone and Henry Hill are far from what I’d consider protagonists worth rooting for.

There’s a huge difference between a film like, for argument’s sake, Hot Tub Time Machine 2 where the characters are uniformly obnoxious and unlikeable because they’ve been one-dimensionally written and a movie that aims to show a real-life situation where none of the major players involved are innocent. In Whitey’s case, the people he aligned himself with were either corrupted or duped by him, and Cooper makes no effort to attach some gallant white knight riding in on a high horse to save Boston (the closest we get is Corey Stoll’s prosecutor Fred Wyshak), nor is he interested in presenting any glamorous side of the mob (Masanobu Takayanagi’s cinematography paints a bleak, stripped-down Boston). It’s a dark and uncompromisingly grim approach (which Cooper is no stranger to), one that is heightened by the tragic reality of Whitey’s story. If you didn’t die by his hands, you were stained by his influence.

Of course, most of the talk has been directed at Johnny Depp’s performance, and how he’s taking a break from the kooky cartoon antics to actually act for once in a long while. Yes, I thought he was great as Jack Sparrow, and I also greatly enjoyed Sweeney Todd, but I didn’t need to see him play 50 million other types of similarly caked-in-makeup characters. This is the same man that gave us first-rate performances in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Ed Wood, Blow and the aforementioned films Donnie Brasco and Finding Neverland (my favorite performance of his), so it’s understandable that many have been disappointed in seeing him keep trying to cash in on the Jack Sparrow/Sweeney Todd shtick over the past decade. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Alice in Wonderland, Dark Shadows, The Lone Ranger and Mortdecai ranged from mediocre to dreadful. Attempts at acting again in Public Enemies, The Tourist and Transcendence haven’t worked either (though The Rum Diary is a rare film in the midst of all those others that I actually enjoyed).

Thankfully, Depp’s turn as Whitey Bulger is a terrific reminder of the talent he’s always possessed, even if it hasn’t been utilized much in a long time. Though he once again is buried under makeup and prosthetics, this time it’s his performance and not his appearance that does the talking. During scenes with Bulger’s son, mother and elderly residents of the Southie neighborhood, Depp brings a little bit of humanity to a man society sees as having none at all, but when Whitey shows his terrifying side, which is honestly his only side, Depp’s A-game shines the brightest. Him not overplaying the terror but simply letting the evil subtly ooze out of him (such as the highly touted steak dinner scene or three key interactions with his wife, Connolly’s wife and his associate’s step-daughter) elevate his chilling portrayal all the more. September’s still a bit early to start making sure-fire nomination picks, but I won’t be the slightest bit surprised if Depp’s name pops up in the Best Actor category for the fourth time in his career.

While Cooper could’ve made this all about Depp and his performance, he assembles a fantastic supporting cast to back up the star. One consistent strength shown in all of Cooper’s films (the other two being Crazy Heart and Out of the Furnace) is that he draws the best out of his cast and he does so once again here, from acting veterans Kevin Bacon, Rory Cochrane and Peter Sarsgaard in a short but highly memorable couple of scenes to up-and-comers Jesse Plemons and Dakota Johnson (the sole redeeming aspect of the trashy Fifty Shades of Grey who like Sarsgaard makes the very most of her limited screen time).

Between this performance and last month’s The Gift, it’s safe to say that Joel Edgerton is having a pretty good year for 2015, and in some ways, Black Mass is just as much his movie as it is Depp’s. As John Connolly, Edgerton is by far the most complicated of all the characters and has the strongest arc. Having grown up in the streets and knowing Bulger since he was a boy, Connolly starts out as wanting to deliver justice to Boston by cleaning out the Italian mob, but over time his misguided sense of loyalty gets the best of him. What begins as him naively defending Whitey to those opposed as the man who once defended him from bullies as a kid eventually turns to him blindly overlooking the blatant crimes committed by Bulger. I guess if you tell yourself a lie long enough, you’ll eventually start to believe it.

And that, kids, is why he’s serving 40 years in prison.

Black Mass isn’t in the same league as Scorsese’s Goodfellas or The Departed, but it’s still significantly better than Michael Shannon’s The Iceman, the disappointing biopic of Richard Kuklinski, another mob killer from the same era. From a narrative standpoint, Black Mass is as straightforward as they come and it’s also not often that you hear someone say two hours feels a little short for a film concerning this subject. Despite what shortcomings the film does have, it is ultimately held together by Scott Cooper’s strong sense of place, its moody atmosphere and, first and foremost, a top-notch cast led by Johnny Depp in what is undoubtedly the strongest work he’s done in years.

I give Black Mass an A- (★★★½).

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