First Dillinger, now Bulger. Johnny Depp is no stranger to makeup — in fact, he's been a costume designer’s wet dream for decades. Even with his more natural look in Public Enemies, in which a somewhat bored Depp battled an uneven script, he still managed to leave us torn up after his death just three minutes before the final credits. His dedication to the physical and verbal demands of acting culminate to a unique sort of presence, as if his films would feel empty without him.
Black Mass is of a similar vein and yet different. It thrives not just on Depp but on its ensemble cast and stylish direction from the gritty Scott Cooper. Depp offers his strongest, most serious performance in years. His unique blend of simple humanity and criminal professionalism gives weight to the film’s most violent scenes, which offer several insights into his real-life character as well as his ideologies (which he sees fit to share with his own six-year old son over dinner). We witness Bulger's extreme charms early on — his irresistable love for those that treat him right, as well as his venom for those that don't. We also come to know Bulger as the coldest of pragmatists. Every murder serves a purpose in this unique tale of co-dependency between cops and criminals.
Cooper and his screenwriters place a firm emphasis on the ensemble casts’ relationships to one another, which makes this somewhat familiar story look and feel different. In one early scene, Depp’s Jimmy Bulger and the men of The Winter Hill Gang bump into an old neighbor and share some formal chit chat. Cooper lets the scene play out naturally, rather than continually cranking up the pace. This helps naturally expose Bulger’s place in South Boston's history as well as some of the connections he shared with the members of his community. This is a man that did time at Alcatraz after all, like Clint Eastwood and Sean Connery before him. His strong grip on his territory brought with it the promise of protection, and the film makes it clear that his presence wasn't entirely unwelcome by some, including certain factions within the FBI.
All that being said, this is where the trailers for Black Mass lose some credit. While light on plot spoilers, the film has been marketed as a sort of Goodfellas for the the 21st century. In reality, the tone here is decidedly gloomier, and the film spends almost no time relishing in all the period specific details of the seventies and eighties. This is a speedier experience, focused more directly on the specific dealings between Bulger's gang and the FBI.
Whereas his previous film, Out of the Furnace, maintained a slower pace, Black Mass infuses style through subtle pans and smart editing, especially for the more violent moments, which harken back to – but don’t directly copy – other classic crime epics like Goodfellas. Cooper is less reliant on close-ups here, and the camera gives the actors room to breathe. The result is a style of crime drama for the 21st century that Cooper can call his own. It highlights his strengths with directing actors and establishing a sense of place, as well as providing audiences with multi-dimensional human beings that feel like real people (which is probably for the best in a film based off true events).
Of course, Depp, with his slicked-back hair and wrinkly face, comes across as the most "done-up". Still, he delivers a stirring performance that's about as icy as his character's criminal legacy. The film is structured around a series of interrogations in which Bulger's closest partners recall the events of the seventies and eighties. This results in the feeling that we're watching a series of vignettes slowly unfold around Bulger, and with each new detail, the character grows in complexity.
The thrust of the main plot centers around Bulger’s childhood friend John Connelly (Joel Edgerton). Now an FBI officer, Conelly works out a deal to bring down a rival Angiulo gang with mafia ties. As per the agreement, Bulger is awarded protection and free reign for just about anything outside of murder. This allows Bulger to build an empire of sorts, and while initially successful, excess and corruption eventually rear their ugly heads.
Loyalty is Black Mass’ central theme, particularly between Bulger and Conelly. Connelly's loyalty for Bulger goes beyond any official business obligation. He's a self-proclaimed “street kid” from South Boston, and his sense of duty to Bulger dates back to his childhood. Bulger’s Senator brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch) shows a similar sort of loyalty and often acts as another bodyguard, shielding his friends from the media and boys in blue. As a politician, he treads carefully, trying to balance his duties to the public with his more corrupt personal dealings. Likewise, Conelly's loyalty to the FBI is eventually questioned as his defense of Bulger's criminality becomes increasingly unjustifiable. This attracts negative attention within the agency himself. Fortunately, a pissed-off Kevin Bacon is always a good thing.
That and more are played intelligently and yet the film itself has difficulty becoming more than the sum of its parts. Cooper and his writers don’t push the envelope during certain pivotal scenes in which loyalties are tested, and the screenplay feels slavish to the real events, perhaps to a fault. Still, the performances dominate. Depp manages to display Bulger's compassion and suffering during several more intimate scenes, but in valuing efficiency and pacing, the script doesn't give him room to truly transcend. The same applies to many of the other characters, which results in a feeling of familiarity. After a few hours, you may find forgetfulness settling in.
Still, Black Mass’ stellar cast, slick style and true to life American gangster story serves up a pretty good crime drama for the 21st century. No easy task at a time when crime dramas continue to struggle under the weight of classics like The Godfather and Goodfellas. There's no doubt that genre casts a huge shadow, making it increasingly difficult to stand out. With Black Mass, Cooper doesn't raise the bar in the way that Coppola and Scorsese did, but it remains a promising example and a good reference point along the genre's continued evolution.