Welcome back, Johnny Depp.
After a long string of critical and box office failures not named Pirates of the Caribbean, the famous actor quickly garnered a bad rap at the box office. But thanks to a spectacular, compelling, and downright scary turn as the notorious gangster James “Whitey” Bulger in Scott Cooper’s Black Mass, Depp convincingly returns to form in what may be his best role yet.
While Depp is certainly a high selling point for Black Mass, it is by no means its only one. An incredible script by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth – adapted from the book by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill –gives a spellbinding and unadulterated look at Whitey Bulger’s secret deal with the FBI. With Bulger serving as an informant, the FBI used his insider information to take out an invasive Italian mafia in Boston, a.k.a. Bulger’s turf. In return, the FBI offered Bulger their protection.
But this is no deal that materialized from thin air: Bulger's FBI connection was with agent John Connolly (played in the film by Joel Edgerton), an up-and-comer in the FBI’s Boston offices, and a dear childhood friend of Bulger’s. With a good buddy behind his back and the protection of a government agency, Bulger then singlehandedly took over the drug trade in Boston, killing everyone that stood in his way. Only later did the scandal show itself to create a whirlwind of controversy.
It’s no surprise, then, that Whitey Bulger is one bad dude, and Depp excels at transforming into him – not just on acting ability alone, but also with a superior makeup job with contacts, latex, and thinning, blonde hair. Depp’s Bulger is calculated and volatile at once; after quickly seeing the swift violence that Bulger dispenses with alarming regularity, staring into his piercing blue eyes creates a deep, visceral fear of him. One wrong move or word around this man could get you killed.
Depp is the undisputed star of Black Mass, but equal praise can be heaped on the rest of the movie’s loaded cast. Joel Edgerton as Connolly also brings an impassioned performance and a great Boston accent, playing as the brighter side of Bulger’s darkness. Benedict Cumberbatch is another excellent actor in the fray, who plays Billy Bulger, a Massachusetts State Senator and the younger brother of Whitey Bulger. Seeing the enterprising Whitey and the well-mannered Billy converse fondly with one another is almost unbelievable. How could these two vastly different men possibly be related?
In fact, there are a treasure trove of performances to witness here: Kevin Bacon, Dakota Johnson, and Corey Stoll all make stellar tuns. But the acting is just one way the movie completely immerses itself in the 70’s and 80's. Cinematography, costume design, and production design all factor in to transforming the characters and their environment into a unique work of visual poetry in a gangster movie – poetry that could rival the visual excellence of The Godfather, Goodfellas, or any other notable gangster film.
Black Mass stands tall with 2006’s The Departed – which happens to be loosely based on Whitey Bulger, in fact – as the premier example of a modern gangster movie. Brutally unforgettable, Black Mass is a must-see early candidate in the 2016 Oscar race.
Written by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth, adapted from the book by Dick Lehr and Gerard O'Neill. Directed by Scott Cooper.
Starring Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Kevin Bacon.