Film Review: ‘Black Mass’

Most Anticipated Movies of Oscar Season
Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Johnny Depp does career-best work as notorious Boston gangster James 'Whitey' Bulger in Scott Cooper's taut, elegantly understated crime drama.

The icy blue eyes of notorious Boston crime boss James “Whitey” Bulger stare out from the screen in Scott Cooper’s “Black Mass” like the gaze of some confident jungle predator calmly lying in wait, holding his ground until the moment he moves in for the kill. And that same coolly calculated composure extends to every aspect of how the actor playing Bulger embodies the role, or rather disappears into it. But if Johnny Depp’s mesmerizing performance — a bracing return to form for the star after a series of critical and commercial misfires — is the chief selling point of “Black Mass,” there is much else to recommend this sober, sprawling, deeply engrossing evocation of Bulger’s South Boston fiefdom and his complex relationship with the FBI agent John Connolly, played with equally impressive skill by Joel Edgerton. Something of an anti-“The Departed” (which was partly inspired by the Bulger case), the movie has an intentionally muted, ’70s-style look and feel that may limit its appeal to the date-night multiplex crowd, but quality-starved adult moviegoers should flock to one of the fall’s first serious, awards-caliber attractions.

Based on the exhaustively researched book of the same name by Boston Globe reporters Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill (who make cameo appearances in the film), “Black Mass” passed through the hands of several directors (including Jim Sheridan and Barry Levinson) on its way to the screen, and nearly fell apart entirely in 2013 when Depp briefly quit the picture over a reported salary dispute. But the project found the right steward in Cooper, who showed a sure hand with actors on his prior “Crazy Heart” and “Out of the Furnace,” and who here challenges Depp to give the kind of less-is-more performance the actor has scarcely been asked to deliver in the post-“Pirates of the Caribbean” era. And Depp more than rises to the occasion, doing career-best work as a man who might easily have been played for ghoulish caricature (a la Jack Nicholson in “The Departed”), but instead emerges as a complex, undeniably charismatic figure who draws other criminals and lawmen alike into his cult of sociopathic personality.

Indeed, it takes a few moments to fully recognize Depp — transformed by latex, contacts and dramatically receding whitish-blond hair — in the film’s opening scenes, set in 1975, just as Bulger was beginning his ascent as the leader of the Winter Hill Gang, a loose confederacy of Irish- and Italian-American hoods vying for control of the South Boston streets against the mob-connected Angiulo brothers. Bulger’s turf war coincides with the homecoming of Connolly, who has established himself as a rising Bureau star on assignment in San Francisco and New York, and who has returned to Boston with the explicit task of taking down the Angiulos and their associates. To do this, he conceives of the plan that will ultimately lead to his undoing: recruiting his childhood friend, Bulger, to supply the Bureau with intel about his rivals in exchange for de facto immunity for his own dirty dealings. In Connolly’s logic, Bulger won’t be a “rat” per se, but rather will enter into an “alliance,” a quid pro quo of sorts that will also help him to rid himself of the competition. (Bulger, for his part, would later deny ever having served as an informant, claiming he paid the FBI for information and not the other way around.)

“Black Mass” hinges on this increasingly compromising pas de deux, and Edgerton (sporting a flawless Boston accent) is superb at showing how the ambitious but straight-laced Connolly is ever more seduced by the decadent gangster lifestyle, his professional ethics muddied by the clan loyalty and street justice that, in some corners of Boston, are more sacred than the Constitution. But working from a script credited to Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth (other hands are also said to have been involved), Cooper enlarges the frame to give us a full-bodied portrait of both men’s worlds — in some ways diametrically opposed, in others oddly similar. Each has his own crew — the fellow thugs Bulger keeps close, and sometimes turns against in hair-trigger fashion (including the very good Jesse Plemons and Rory Cochrane as right-hand men Kevin Weeks and Steve Flemmi); the fellow agents (played by the likes of Kevin Bacon and Adam Scott) whom Connolly manipulates in an elaborate shell game designed to deflect attention from Bulger and himself. And though Connolly is the ostensible family man, with a concerned wife (Julianne Nicholson) who sees him changing in ways he doesn’t realize, we also experience an oddly tender side of Bulger himself — a devoted son to his elderly mother, loving sibling to his state-senator brother, Billy (an excellent Benedict Cumberbatch), and a protective father who indoctrinates his young son in the ways of the streets (“If nobody sees it, it didn’t happen”).

The script compresses the potentially unwieldy narrative into three major acts, the second set in 1981 (when Bulger makes an ultimately ill-fated play to corner the Jai Alai gambling market in Florida), and the third in 1985, when the Bulger-Connolly alliance has so successfully eliminated Whitey’s competitors that the agent can no longer shield the Winter Hill Gang from the wrath of a dogged federal prosecutor (Corey Stoll). And at each step, Cooper stages taut, riveting setpieces that feel destined for the genre canon, including an unforgettable dinner scene (already revealed at some length in the film’s first trailer) in which Bulger turns a seemingly innocuous discussion of a “secret” family recipe into a blistering attack on the loyalty of Connolly’s supervisor, John Morris (David Harbour). The insidious cackle Bulger unleashes at the end of that rant is about the closest “Black Mass” ever comes to the grisly gallows humor that has become the lingua franca of the gangster movie in the post-“GoodFellas” era, but mostly Depp and Cooper play things in a more understated key.

Depp hasn’t been this tamped down in a movie since he played second fiddle to Al Pacino in “Donnie Brasco”; even his Oscar-nominated J.M. Barrie in “Finding Neverland” seems a whirl of outsized tics and mannerisms by comparison. Even great actors (Nicholson and Pacino being among the perfect test cases) can fall back on indulgences and bad habits when they feel they’re giving the audience what it wants to see. But Depp is fully restored here to the daring, inspired performer of his early Tim Burton collaborations and “Dead Man,” knowing he is so deep inside the role that, whatever he does, we will come to him. The violence in “Black Mass,” when it comes, is swift and brutal, but nothing here is more startling than a single, sudden dart of Bulger’s eyes across a room.

Working with a top-flight craft team that includes production designer Stefania Cella (“The Great Beauty”) and costume designer Kasia Walicka Maimone (“Foxcatcher”), Cooper bathes the film in a look that feels unfailingly true to the period without ever verging on kitsch; it’s a movie that isn’t just taking place in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, but seems to have been made then. That feeling is further enhanced by the hard-edged elegance of cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi’s 35mm widescreen lensing (which strongly recalls Gordon Willis’ work on “Klute” and the “Godfather” movies). In a complete about-face from his adrenaline-pumping “Mad Max: Fury Road” soundtrack, Dutch composer/producer Tom Holkenborg (aka Junkie XL) supplies an elegiac orchestral score that perfectly complements the film’s desperate, wintry mood.

Film Review: 'Black Mass'

Reviewed at Warner Bros. screening room, New York, July 22, 2015. (In Venice Film Festival — noncompeting; Telluride Film Festival; Toronto Film Festival — Special Presentations.) MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 122 MIN.

Production

A Warner Bros. release presented in association with Cross Creek Pictures and RatPac-Dune Entertainment of a Cross Creek Pictures production in association with Le Grisbi Prods., Free State Pictures and Head Gear Films. Produced by John Lesher, Brian Oliver, Scott Cooper, Patrick McCormick, Tyler Thompson. Executive producers, Brett Ratner, James Packer, Steven Mnuchin, Peter Mallouk, Ray Mallouk, Christopher Woodrow, Brett Granstaff, Gary Granstaff, Phil Hunt, Compton Ross. Co-executive producers, Adam Kassan, Chuck Rock, Michael Bassick.

Crew

Directed by Scott Cooper. Screenplay, Mark Mallouk, Jez Butterworth, based on the book by Dick Lehr, Gerard O’Neill. Camera (Deluxe color, widescreen, 35mm), Masanobu Takayanagi; editor, David Rosenbloom; additional editor, Claire Simpson; music, Tom Holkenborg; production designer, Stefania Cella; art director, Jeremy Woodward; set decorator, Tracey Doyle; set designers, Bryan Felty, Karl Martin, Christina Todesco; costume designer, Kasia Walicka Maimone; sound (Dolby Digital), Tom Williams; supervising sound editors, Mark Mangini, Byron Wilson; re-recording mixers, Mangini, Ron Bartlett; visual effects supervisor, Paul Linden; visual effects, Zero FX, Crafty Apes, Lola VFX; stunt coordinators, Chuck Jeffreys, G.A. Aguilar; associate producer, Richard Mirisch; assistant director, Michele Ziegler; casting, Francine Maisler.

With

Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dakota Johnson, Kevin Bacon, Peter Sarsgaard, Jesse Plemons, Rory Cochrane, David Harbour, Adam Scott, Corey Stoll, Julianne Nicholson, W. Earl Brown, Bill Camp, Juno Temple, Mark Mahoney, Brad Carter, Scott Anderson, Lonnie Farmer, Mary Klug, Erica McDermott, Luke Ryan.

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  1. Gail Mooney says:

    I saw the movie last night and really have to say I enjoyed the movie. Great characters portrayed in the movie by JDepp, Dakota, Kevin Bacon, Julianne N and many others. Good Boston accents and loved scenes of Boston.

  2. Shawn says:

    Saw the movie and was disappointed when I started to do some research into the whole scene, came across a review from Kevin Weeks. It is eye opening!!!

  3. Mike says:

    I agree with the review 100%! Great movie. Johnny Depp is fabulous in his role of the sick minded Whitey Bulger. A must see!

  4. chip232004 says:

    This movie was awful. It was long and boring. The acting, writing, directing, etc. I kept waiting for it to get better and more interesting but it didn’t. Johnny Depp was not impressive as Bulger, poorly cast.

  5. Ernest Kinas says:

    I am from Boston.
    My grandparents and my Uncle Chris lived right on Broadway.
    They used to get Christmas cards from the Bulger family.
    I agree with whoever said that this territory was already covered successfully by Mssrs. Scorcese and Nicholson.
    This piece of garbage is nothing but a retread.
    I know several people whose lives were completely destroyed by this psychopathic monster, and any attempt to portray Whitey in a human light is an incredible disservice to the victims and their families.
    Boycott it.
    Don’t see it.
    But of course that will simply make you want to see it more, right?
    Knowing what a complete den of perversion Hollywood is, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if Depp gets the Oscar nod at the annual Tinsletown circle jerk known as the Academy Awards.
    P.S.
    Johnny Depp’s “thinning hair” as Bulger is actually his real hair.
    Johnny’s been losing his hair since 21 Jump Street.
    Peace and love,
    Ernie the K.

    • James G says:

      I lived in South Boston for all the 70’s and part of the 80’s and am ashamed to say i knew of him and some of his associates as i worked sometimes in this organization and knew of some of the people he killed like Buddy Leonard and Tommy King he was a beast while scaring people to death but the streets were a lot safer then than they are now as Southie is now a safe haven to yuppies who can afford to change the neighborhoods and heroin addicts that rob and kill people for nothing but a fix

  6. Sam America says:

    Donnie Brasco was Depp’s last great movie! Nothing but garbage and that horrible Dark Shadows
    crap that wasn’t even really a Dark Shadows movie. Hollyweird sucks and so has Depp. There is
    no reason to go to movies anymore with the garbage they make but this seems like a movie that
    might be good enough to take a chance and see if Depp has still got the goods to deliver.

  7. James says:

    Looks amazing.

  8. iamtrue2bill says:

    I am delighted to read that Depp is again demonstrating his incredible talent and understated intensity that I remember so well in “Johnny Brasco,” a favorite of mine. Sounds like this is a winner. I love a good crime drama.

  9. oli says:

    Those blue eyes still look very strange.

  10. neobux login says:

    I’m very excited for this movie! Johnny looks great.

  11. ConnorFilm says:

    I’m ecstatic to hear Depp as back in his prime. This is exactly the time of role I’ve wanted to see from him. Sick of the pirate and clown shtick.

  12. RTF372 says:

    As much as I like Johnny Depp, I just can’t see his treatment of Whitey Bulger outdoing Scorsese and Nicholson, even if Depp’s portrayal is far more accurate. I’ll see it. Hopefully by watching it with low expectations it might be a pleasant surprise, like Donnie Brasco.

  13. prophet1965 says:

    I hate to say it but this movie is gonna tank big time. No one is interested in this story.

    • James G says:

      it should tank it’s not the real true story nothing but fictional made from briefings of Boston Globe writers who thought they new the real details i know what i am talking about as i lived thru this era in South Boston and i am ashamed to say i knew him and his counterparts as i was sometimes involved with some of there devious plots working in there organization at times some of the things they say are not true as Johnny Matarano was number 1 hit man not Stevie Flemmi as Stevie was his right arm many people left out namely his girl fiend and cohert Catherine Greig and top collector Robert Ford who is now deceased and his successor Bobby O’Connor with all the books written which i have read all and now these movies the real truth has not come out 100% yet at times my sister still tells me at holiday gatherings that i probably could tell a truer and more accurate version since i was aligned with them in the early years

    • Murica! says:

      Wrong loser! This movie will be a hit.

  14. prophet1965 says:

    I hate to say it but this movie is gonna tank big time.

  15. John says:

    Edgerton such an underrated actor. With younger Aussie actors like Worthington and Jai its a shame seeing Edgerton missing the push into big mainstream pictures

  16. Daryle says:

    I am so thrilled to see this review, and hope the movie delivers. I have always thought that Johnny Depp was a unique and incredibly creative talent – perhaps the very best of his generation…and that Oscar sooner or later would recognize him. Maybe “Black Mass” will be the movie that brings him the statue. He’s been memorable in SO many films going all the way back to “Gilbert Grape” and “Benny and Joon”, and is way past due for recognition. But if he gets honored for this one… it would be for a much more subtle, controlled performance than for the daring, flashier ones that made his characters unforgettable (e.g., Jack Sparrow, Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood). I suspect that the Academy would HAVE to honor Depp with a lifetime achievement award some time, regardless, simply because the parade of characters he’s uniquely portrayed would make such an irresistible visual montage for an Oscar audience!

  17. I can’t wait I’ll stand in line for it.

  18. Sam says:

    Those contact lenses on Depp look so unnatural and creepy which I suppose helped make the character.

  19. Amber says:

    So relieved to read this review, Depp was on the verge of torpedoing his own career of late.This sounds like a real return to form.

  20. IT 2 IT says:

    PSYCHOPATHS are fascinating, from some angles, but,
    in the end, they have NO second act.

    Scorsese and Stone were responsible for replacing character
    development with PSYCHOPATHIC frenzy.

    Riveting —and repetitive NOWHERE.

    We understand Hollywood itself is now 100% PSYCHOPATH RUN.

    Judging by the lack of freshness, variety and even genuine creativity,
    we MUST believe it’s TRUE.

  21. JohnThomas says:

    Plant

  22. buffalobilly says:

    edgerton is xcellent as ever.
    depp is depp, as usual…alas.

  23. Movie Expert says:

    his best performance is ‘Ed Wood’

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