Black Mass: Spoiler Free Review.
Just to get this out of the way up front, James Joseph “Whitey” Bulger, Jr. is an Irish-American convicted murderer and a former organized crime boss of the Boston Irish mob crew known as the Winter Hill Gang. I personally was unaware of his story until the screening of Black Mass just a day ago, and what a story it is. The only thing as incredible as the story is Johnny Depp’s performance as Bulger. With big stars, it can be typical for their performances to be over shadowed by their stardom (Will Smith will always just be Will Smith no matter what movie he’s in) but every so often, you get a transformation like Heath Ledger into the Joker, and Depp’s portrayal of Whitey Bulger is of the same caliber.
The crux of the film isn’t just the violence of the Winter Hill Gang, but Bulger’s involvement with both the government and the FBI. Gangster films can be much like dance movies, you know what’s going to happen, but the dance moves get better every time. You know someone’s going to get shot, and the gangsters get caught at the end, but the fact that Bulger and Winter Hill were being protected by federal agents makes the plot far more interesting. The other noticeable difference about ‘Black Mass’ is that the use of violence in the film is orchestrated so well, that every time a gun goes off, everyone in their seats had an “oh wow” moment. ‘Black Mass’ isn’t overly saturated with guns, and focuses more on the relationship between its characters, Bulger as a father, and the things in life that can impact people with power, not merely on showcasing the violence of organized crime.
The cast was full of incredible talent, and aside from Depp, Joel Edgerton’s performance as FBI agent John Connelly was remarkable. Benedict Cumberbatch also had a break out roll, but after watching Sherlock for 3 years (which he references with a quick “Baker’s Street” line), Cumberbatch’s Boston accent was a bit off kilter. The cast was so strong in fact that some of them may have been under utilized, specifically Dakota Johnson (who just disappears after a scene, and never really comes back) or Jesse Plemons as Kevin Weeks. Kevin Weeks is the first character to come to life in the movie, but his importance diminished as the film progressed, to the point where I forgot why I was supposed to care about him first place. The only flaw in casting may be that some of the Winter Hill Gang members looked too much alike, and at one point I found myself asking, “Didn’t that guy die already, or is that the other one?” However, certain scenes like the ‘steak scene’ in the first trailer for the film are masterfully acted, and have such an amazing air of tension.
Some of the most interesting facets of the film centered around the gang landscape of Southie (Boston), and Bulger as a parent. Depp plays the role of Bulger immensely well, and he doesn’t just feel like some ruthless lunatic, but like a person with real motivations, emotions, and reasons for making the decisions he did. I will say however that the film doesn’t spend enough time showing what Bulger actually did to make his money, and assumes you know his story before you walk into the theater. After the screening I even had another writer ask me “So what happened to all the money? And why did they keep talking about vending machines?” But the writing should be commended as well as the acting, and although certain characters have wavering Bostonian accents, some of the lines in the film were unforgettable, specifically scenes with Bulger speaking to his son. “Don’t ever throw the first punch… Throw the first TWO punches.”
But all in all, the film shines as a gritty gangster story, with a strong cast, and even stronger story that focuses more on the criminals and their connections as people than the actual crimes. Even the score (especially towards the end of the film) brings out the tension and the horror of certain situations, but the star of the show is Johnny Depp. It seemed a bit far fetched that Captain Jack Sparrow could pull off playing one of the most notorious criminals in American History, but he brought out the anger, and the danger of living life around Whitey Bulger.