Release: 21st March 2016
Format: BR / DVD / DGTL
While his brother Bill (Benedict Cumberbatch) remains a powerful leader in the Massachusetts Senate, Irish hoodlum James “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp) continues to pursue a life of crime in 1970s Boston. Approached by FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), the lawman convinces Whitey to help the agency fight the Italian mob. As their unholy alliance spirals out of control, Bulger increases his power and evades capture to become one of the most dangerous gangsters in U.S. history.
The name James ‘Whitey’ Bulger has very little meaning in shores outside the United States. Unless one has a penchant for crime stories, or knows the roots of Jack Nicholson’s Frank Costello in The Departed, the legend of Boston’s most notorious mobster is little more than local folklore. That is about to change, however, thanks to Scott Cooper’s blistering biopic, Black Mass.
Gangsters have long been a mainstay sweetheart of cinema. From James Cagney and Edward Robinson’s scenery chewing antics of yesteryear, through the classical period dominated by the Corleone family, to Cuban coke heads and just about everything Joe Pesci stands for; gangland America is rife with drama, comedy and a bit of the old ultra violence. The true life tale of White Bulger feels like a cliché stacked against the tropes of the genre. He was a charmer, a bully, a psycho and just about everything you’d expect a gangster to be; it started in the mean streets of Boston and ended in multiple arrests and innumerable unmarked graves. No wonder then, that Bulger’s story has taken so long to reach the screen; after all, would you really risk upsetting a man who, until recently, was still very much at large? It has been a long wait, but Black Mass was well worth it.
The film follows a tested method of story through flashback, and tries its hardest not to let the narrative nestle down too quickly, into an A to Z of gangster cinema. Screenwriters Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth try to avoid the cradle-to-grave tendencies of most crime stories; with us meeting Bulger long into his power plays on the Boston crime scene. There are some efforts to depict the many faces of the FBI’s second most wanted individual – helping old ladies, being a loving father, looking after mum, entertaining guests – but ultimately we just need to see where a bit of luck, a lack of conscience and a love of garrotting can get you in life.
However, in spite of best intentions, Black Mass does often drift to the overly familiar; and in its quieter moments threatens to taper off. But the central relationship between Bulger and Special Agent John Connolly is so grotesquely rewarding, that salvation is never too far away. The violence is sparse but somehow feels constant, and this is mostly down to Cooper’s excellent direction and Masanobu Takayanagi’s subtly period, claustrophobic and often menacing cinematography.
Black Mass finds one of its biggest strengths is its secondary casting. The likes of Jesse Plemoons, Rory Cochrane, W. Earl Brown and Peter Sarsgaard keep the film as a pulsing cess pool of living, breathing characters. Even roles which read flat on paper, pop to life in the guise of Kevin Bacon, Corey Stoll, Julianne Nicholson and Dakota Johnson. Little mention should be made of Depp and Joel Eggerton, not because they don’t deserve a mention, but because it seems redundant to praise such amazing performances. Their work truly speaks for itself, and it would be fair to suggest that Bulger could be a career best for Depp. At any rate, you can safely assume that after seeing him in this, no one will ever skip out on dinner with the man ever again.
Film Grade: A-
There is a large chunk of Black Mass which never made it to the theatrical cut; and remains absent even in the special features. Not a deleted scene in sight. Instead, we have the mildly engaging Black Mass: Deepest Cover, Darkest Crime. Great efforts are taken here to contextualise the film, and as Scott Cooper does, point out that Black Mass is a dramatisation of truth.
A tidy little glimpse into Depp’s portrayal of Bugler comes as Johnny Depp: Becoming Whitey Bulger. We learn some factoids about Depp’s experience and psychology behind the role, including the truth that deep down he actually quite likes Bulger!
And to cap things off, we have The Manhunt for Whitey Bulger. This hour long documentary goes to great lengths to both slag off the FBI, and fill in the gaps the film leaves. All-in-all a nice companion piece to the movie.
Special Features Grade: B
Black Mass has been picked on a little by critics; calling it superficial and glossy. The truth is, this is one truly messed up buddy movie; and a very good one too. Watch it…or Whitey’ll come get ya!