By Andrew Fader
In recent years, Hollywood has shifted some of its attention from the West Coast to the East, setting many crime films within and around the Boston area. Films like “The Departed,” “The Town,” and “Mystic River” have become staples among modern crime dramas. All three of these films depict altered versions of James “Whitey” Bulger. However, “Black Mass” seeks to separate itself from these films by telling the true story that Massachusetts natives know all too well.
“Black Mass” is a dark and gritty film, taking place over the span of about 20 years. The film begins in 1975 by following James “Whitey” Bulger (played expertly by Johnny Depp) and his criminal exploits in South Boston. Childhood friend John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), now an FBI agent, is desperate to take down the Mafia in northern Boston. To get dirt on the Mafia, Connolly convinces Bulger to become an FBI informant.
The partnership between Bulger and the FBI is the heart of the film. All of this is cleverly framed around the testimonies of Bulger’s lackey, Kevin Weeks (Jesse Plemons), partner Stevie Flemmi (Rory Cochrane), and hit man John Martorano (W. Earl Brown).
Boston and its various boroughs are expertly brought to life by director Scott Cooper and cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi. They nail the aesthetic of the blue-collar South Boston without falling into the trap of showing off all of Boston’s most famous landmarks. Instead, the film decides to show us a grittier and more street-level look at urban crime. There is no shortage of seedy bars and their dark back rooms as well as craggy shorelines accentuated with concrete skies.
All of this is brought to life with a great ensemble cast and some Oscar-worthy performances. After a string of disappointing films, Johnny Depp redeems himself with his understated yet menacing portrayal of James “Whitey” Bulger. In lesser hands, the role would have come off as cartoonish and cheap. Yet Depp is able to balance Bulger’s brutal actions against those who pose a threat to his empire with the warmth he has for his family.
While “Black Mass” is about Bulger’s rise and fall, the film surprisingly focuses a lot of screen time on Joel Edgerton’s John Connolly. The movie is as much about Connolly’s rise to power and fall as it is about Bulger’s. Edgerton is able to pull off John Connolly’s corrupt dealings with the FBI and Bulger without making him unsympathetic. The scenes between Depp and Edgerton are some of the best within the film, partly because of Connolly’s hero worship of Bulger, a man who is seen as a “Robin Hood” type figure in his community. The power dynamic between the two and how it shifts over the course of the film is a treat to watch.
Some other key characters include Bulger’s brother Billy Bulger, played by Benedict Cumberbatch; Dakota Johnson as Lindsey Cyr, mother to Whitey’s son; and Julianne Nicholson as Marianne, Connolly’s wife. Unfortunately these characters as well as few others aren’t fully developed. The relationship between Whitey and his brother could have benefited from a few more scenes that show the parallels in both their ambitious natures. And while both the lead female characters are sidelined a bit, both have standout scenes with Whitey, especially an uncomfortable confrontation between Whitey and Marianne in the latter half of the film. These moments, while still effective, could have had a larger impact if the audience were more invested in these women.
“Black Mass” is not a perfect film, but its tight screenplay, memorable performances, and expertly crafted vision of a 1970s -1980s Boston make up for its underutilized supporting cast. Both Depp and Edgerton’s performances elevate the film significantly and give them a shot at some awards/nominations. The film does an admirable job of showing both Whitey’s extremely violent actions and moments of sincerity without romanticizing him as a character.
Add “Black Mass” to the list of great true-crime dramas.