Based on the intriguing true story, Black Mass follows the chronological rise and fall of Jimmy “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp), an Irish-American gangster who at one time was near the top of the FBI Ten Most Wanted Fugitives, second only to Osama Bin Laden. Equal parts sadistic and fascinating, the film follows his life through flashback accounts of his former entourage as they relate how Bulger through an “association” with FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) received cart blanche on his illegal activities by informing on his opponents.
Black Mass‘ greatest strength is the effectiveness of its performances from a fantastic ensemble cast that includes Joel Edgertan as the corrupt Connolly, Julianne Nicholson as his tormented wife, and Benedict Cumberbatch as William Bulger, Massachusetts senator and brother of Whitey; however, the film belongs to Johnny Depp who once again gets an opportunity to shine by totally inhabiting the character even when buried under mountains of makeup.
It is Depp’s intensity in the role that helps elevate Black Mass from the generic tone of the picture which at many times falls flat under its procedural and chronological construct. While there are many outstanding scenes such as a frightening dinner confrontation over secret family recipes (showcased, wisely, in the film’s trailer), a bilious, disturbing bedroom encounter between Depp and Nicholson, and the murder of a teenage prostitute, they are merely diamonds in the rough of a sadly plodding screenplay. What is particularly apparent about these highlights is that they are the few departures from the overall flow the narrative where the characters are allowed time to interact and showcase the dynamics of their portrayals, or, in the case of the teenage prostitute, the film can take the opportunity to build tension even if the end result is rather predictable. These scenes are impressive and unfortunately only help point out many of the film’s missed opportunities. Moreover, one of the most fascinating aspects of the story, the relationship between the two Bulger brothers, is appallingly glossed over save for a few snippets here and there. By the time the film documents the story to its conclusion, the customary informational credits that pop up for each character feel like an anti-climax.
Despite its pitfalls of monotony, it really is Depp’s performance that earns Black Mass a recommendation. After years of falling into many humdrum mainstream performances, this is very much a return to form and reminds viewers that if presented the right material, Depp still has what it takes to turn in a mesmerizing, kinetic performance. In the case of Black Mass, it is his “association” which boosts it from mediocrity to something more.