It’s no small compliment from me when I tell you that I believe Scott Cooper’s Black Mass can run with Scorsese’s mob trilogy of Goodfellas, Casino and, especially, the South Boston-flavored The Departed. It's that dirty, nasty and compelling. Now there’s no question that Cooper is retracing steps that were laid in the blood-soaked mud by Scorsese’s enormous shoe. But if you dialed into the madness and menace of those aforementioned crime sagas, then Black Mass is right up your alley.
Johnny Depp is a major reason why. I want to take you all back to a time when Johnny Depp didn’t have to constantly put on a funny accent and a funny hat on his head to get put in a movie. Can you remember how commanding Depp was in Donnie Brasco, or how captivating he was in Ed Wood? Do you recall when Depp owned the screen in movies like Blow, Edward Scissorhands, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and yes, even Pirates of the Caribbean (the first one, at least)? Trust me people, he’s that damn good in Black Mass. His character is so larger-than-life and barely contained to the screen as he turns true-life Boston crime lord James “Whitey” Bulger into a menacing, intimidating and dangerously unpredictable snake in the grass. Honestly, there are times in this where I thought he was going to turn into or was a vampire.
Bulger’s story is a classic American gangster tale, the stuff that essentially writes itself for the screen (no disrespect to Black Mass screenwriters Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth, who wring tension and fear out of Bulger’s criminal reign). From the early 1970s until 1994, Bulger and the sadistic members of his Winter Hill Gang lorded over South Boston’s tight-knit neighborhoods – feuding with Italian rivals and manipulating local law enforcement. But Bulger also made a deal behind the scenes with the FBI in 1975 to serve as an informant, and it’s this seedy relationship that gives Black Mass its spine.
Thankfully Depp isn’t asked to hoist Black Mass on his back and carry it the distance, although in all honesty he probably could have. It’s almost at times that when he is not on the screen the movie tends to slow down. But this is what brings us to his co-star of the film who has just about as much screen time as Johnny’s character. On the FBI’s side, Cooper casts the fantastic Joel Edgerton (Warrior, The Gift) as John Connolly, a childhood friend (and fellow Southie) of Bulger’s who puts his neck on the line and convinces his superior (Kevin Bacon) that a deal with the crime boss can be beneficial to the Bureau. And for a short amount of time, it seems to be working. Bulger gives the FBI information about his rivals, and then operates his own criminal operations under the “protection” provided by having assistants in law enforcement. Nothing sticks to Bulger, so it’s damn near impossible to bring him down – even though he’s involved in everything from drugs and racketeering to murder. Cooper even establishes an unexpectedly affecting relationship between Bulger and his son, and complications in that relationship push Whitey further down a path to destruction.
To put it frank, Black Mass is a rock-solid, well-structured and brutal crime drama. It covers so much blood-soaked ground in Bulger’s sketchy history, but doesn’t shortchange the audience from understanding the man’s impact and influence. If Cooper’s approach to the genre differs from Scorsese in one important way, it’s that there are no rock-music cues or bouts of uncomfortable, dark levity to break the tension. Black Mass is pure cutthroat and mean. It looks and acts as dirty and angry as the trailers show it to be. And you can’t take your eyes off of it, especially when Depp is on the screen. That’s high praise.