Black Mass is an intriguing blend of classic gangster movie drama under the umbrella of an intimate Bulger biopic.
Following nine years of incarceration for armed robbery (including a stint at Alcatraz), Jimmy “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp) returns home to his childhood stomping grounds: South Boston. Overrun by Italian organized crime families, Bulger and his Winter Hill Gang set out on a violent campaign to wrest control of Southie from Gennaro Angiulo – underboss to the infamous Patriarca mafia family. Despite a lowly status in the grand scheme of organized crime, The Winter Hill Gang’s war against Angiulo and his associates makes Bulger a person of interest at the F.B.I. – especially to Agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton).
A former Southie kid who idolized the Bulger boys growing up, Agent Connolly approaches Jimmy with the idea of informing on the Angiulo family in exchange for F.B.I. protection. Despite an initial reluctance, Bulger eventually agrees to inform for Connolly – seeing the alliance as a lucrative business opportunity (not “ratting”). However, after providing Connolly with key intel on Angiulo, Bulger soon begins to exploit the F.B.I.’s blind eye in order to grow his own criminal empire.
Based on Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill’s book of the same name, Black Mass follows the true events of Bulger’s two decades spent “informing” for the F.B.I. Directed by Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart and Out of the Furnace), Black Mass is an intriguing blend of classic gangster movie drama under the umbrella of an intimate Bulger biopic. Certain aspects of the production are more successful than others, as the theatrical cut (which is roughly 45 minutes shorter than Cooper’s director’s cut) is a relatively slow but still captivating burn. Moviegoers looking for a real-life version of The Departed (which was loosely based on Bulger’s F.B.I. informant days) may find too much “bio” in Cooper’s biopic; nevertheless, the film succeeds on its own terms as an intimate portrait of Bulger’s increasingly violent (and erratic) grab for power in Boston.
As with any biopic, Cooper takes liberties with the events of Black Mass in order to make Bulger’s story work as a movie – not just a highlight reel of key moments – so die-hard Boston historians will need to check their encyclopedic knowledge of the Winter Hill Gang at the door. That said, Cooper’s streamlined version of the tale (which removes former associates in order to maintain focus on Bulger) succeeds in a near-impossible task: establishing Bulger as a sensitive, and subsequently relatable, human being in the first act – which makes the character’s descent into unchecked violence and paranoia all the more impactful.
That small shred of humanity (showing Bulger as a doting son and dedicated father) ensures Jimmy is more layered than a standard gangster movie villain; a likable but vicious person, untethered from the relationships that, in a different world, might have kept him grounded. Unsurprisingly, Depp disappears into the role thanks to convincing age makeup and a savvy blend of charisma and quirk, filtered through the lens of a murderous sociopath. Some viewers will recognize shades of famous Depp characters in Bulger, but the line between weird and homicidal works, painting a convincing portrait of the Boston gangster – a man that, despite violent criminal actions, could also be extremely witty and charming.
As with any quality biopic, the supporting cast turns in strong performances – and, like Bulger, Cooper portrays even the most ruthless of Winter Hill’s associates as people, not cliches. In particular, Joel Edgerton captures the increasingly callow F.B.I. agent tasked with covering Winter Hill’s tracks for twenty-plus years – a man that starts out with good intentions but is consumed by lies, money, and desperation to earn Bulger’s admiration. Similarly, Benedict Cumberbatch takes-on the challenge of portraying Jimmy’s younger brother, Billy Bulger – a well-respected state senator attempting to do right by his constituents, while remaining loyal to his family. Billy Bulger is another strong Cumberbatch role, serving as a quiet and thoughtful counter-balance to Jimmy’s raw personality and impulsive violence.
Several familiar faces also make-up Jimmy Bulger’s gallery of associates and rogues. Dakota Johnson (playing Bulger’s girlfriend Lindsey Cyr), Jesse Plemons (as bruiser Kevin Weeks), David Harbour (F.B.I. liaison John Morris), and W. Earl Brown (hitman John Martorano) each provide interesting perspective on Bulger’s life. In particular, Rory Cochrane’s portrayal of enforcer Stephen “The Rifleman” Flemmi is a powerful barometer for how the audience can view Bulger throughout the film. Though understated, Flemmi’s comments (or absence of comments) as events unfold offer many of the most insightful (and haunting) scenes in Black Mass – made even more poignant in the aftermath of a death close to Flemmi.
Next to brief appearances by Kevin Bacon, Adam Scott, Corey Stoll, and Peter Sarsgaard, Julianne Nicholson (Masters of Sex) is another standout – depicting John Connolly’s wife, Marianne. Marianne reinforces the slow corruption of her initially well-intentioned husband, and Nicholson delivers a gut-wrenching performance in one of the film’s most chilling scenes.
Historians may take issue with elements of Black Mass, but Cooper has developed a captivating look at Bulger and the numerous people complicit in the gangster’s unchecked criminal activity. The director’s choice to portray Bulger as more than a ruthless killer may be hard for some viewers to reconcile; yet, the layered depiction actually makes Jimmy even more terrifying – and to that end, Cooper succeeds. Black Mass covers a lot of territory that audiences will have seen before in both fiction, adaptation, and non-fiction, but memorable performances from the leads – as well as an uncompromising look at Bulger, his crew, and his enemies – ensure that Cooper’s film is a substantive glimpse at one of America’s most notorious, clever, and ruthless criminals.
Black Mass runs 122 minutes and is Rated R for brutal violence, language throughout, some sexual references and brief drug use. Now playing in theaters.
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