Based on the eponymous non-fiction bestseller by Dick Lehr and Gerard O'Neill, the film is a weighty action crime-drama starring Johnny Depp and Joel Edgerton as 'Southie' Bostonians on either side of the law. Through a series of interview sequences and flashbacks the film tells of the 'unholy' alliance between Bulger (Depp) and John Connelly (Edgerton), an FBI agent who grew up in the same South Boston projects as Bulger, and who grants him clemency even at the height of his most atrocious dealings.
With a slick script from award-winning playwright Jez Butterworth, and all the trappings
of Goodfellas meets the Departed (also apparently inspired
by Bulger’s case) the film navigates the familiar territory of gangsters
and their shady dealings with the authorities, but lays the Bulger biopic on camera for the first time. Ultimately Black Mass sheds light on the scandal how it was that Bulger managed to stay out of harm as an informant for so long, and the corruption that infiltrates the highest levels of the bureau.
Depp is chilling as the ruthless mobster, and according to those who knew Bulger, channels him eerily well – though it’s difficult not to be distracted by his makeup, so loaded is he with prosthetics as he stares out from those icy blue contact lenses. Benedict Cumberbatch stars as Bulger's state senator brother, smooth and bureaucratic, sporting a faultless Boston accent.
It’s difficult, at times, to believe the story of Black Mass – its degrees of infiltration reach such unconscionable heights. With FBI agent Connelly seeming, from the offset, to be willingly corrupted, it's hard to believe his character could indeed have risen up the ranks. As one line in the film states: "we went from playing cops and robbers on the playground to doing it for real in the streets." There's a comic flair to Edgerton's performance as becomes literally fatter, more loaded down with gold watches and expensive tailoring. Little subtlety, perhaps, but it makes Black Mass an entertaining ride.
Powerful performance come from the women on the sidelines of the action: one disturbing scene sees Bulger creeping up to the bedroom of Connelly’s wife, running his hands over her neck as she winces in disgust. Juno Temple gives a short-lived but wickedly entertaining cameo as a doe-eyed young prostitute, but it's Fifty Shades' Dakota Johnson who really steals the show. Playing Bulger’s long-suffering girlfriend and mother of his son, Johnson makes the perfect counterpart to Bulger's brutality, and also exposes some of Bulger's few human moments – which are distressingly scarce. Too often we see him as a figure of sheer terror, a vengeful fury and little more than a one-dimensional psychopath. It's difficult to believe this is a man who was loved by South Bostonians as their 'Robin Hood' figure – he's so clearly playing the villain in Cooper's grisly world.
Note should also go to Peter Sarskgaard, who weighs in with a small but knuckle-bitingly funny performance as a sweaty, twitching drug addict Brian Halloran: infectious to watch as we see him digging his own grave, double-crossing Bulger and his motley crew.
A gritty piece of work that refuses to glamourise violence – unlike recent gangster movie, Krays biopic Legend – Black Mass is slick, powerfully shot and manages to cover a huge amount of ground without sacrificing its personal elements. A true story, then, with all the trappings of a Scorsese, whether or not Black Mass is truly a 'return to form' for Depp depends on whether you can see the man behind the make-up.
UK release date 27 November.
|What||'Black Mass' film review 'A true story with all the trappings of Scorsese'|
|Where||Various Locations | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Leicester Square (underground)|
27 Nov 15 – 31 Jan 16, 12:00 PM – 12:00 AM
|Price||£ determined by cinema|
|Website||Click here to go to the Black Mass IMDB page.|