The Departed was the second Scorsese movie I ever saw. I knew it was a remake of a Hong Kong film, but I did not find out until recently the character of Costello was inspired by real-life Irish gangster James “Whitey” Bulger. Scorsese often takes many liberties with his work, giving actors room for improv or injecting moments of comedy to lighten the tone in some places, even though it may not fit with the events of the movie. The story of Bulger, however, is one devoid of light, as he became the most notorious gangster in America. Does Black Mass play into his dark history or forego reality for something theatrical and audience friendly?
In comic book movies, the hero is only as good as the villain. Since Dark Knight the demand for better antagonists has increased, setting high standards for all movies to come. Heath Ledger showed one must dedicate themself to the character, going so far as to change their emotional and mental state to be consistent. Skill above all determines the quality of the villain and Johnny Depp as Bulger excels as one of the best new villains in movies today.
Black Mass follows the rise and fall of James “Whitey” Bugler in the 70s and 80s as kingpin of South Boston. Capitalizing on his friendship, FBI agent Connolly, played by Joel Edgerton, forms a partnership with Bulger where both would help each other to bring down the dominant Italian mob. However, the plan quickly backfires when Bulger uses the opportunity to assert his dominance over the city while manipulating the authorities.
Depp is the reason Black Mass works and why you should see it. I would go so far as to say he is on par, if not better than Ledger’s Joker. Subtlety is a big part of why he is so affective. Over the course of the story, Bulger slowly becomes more unhinged with every tragedy in his life. It also plays into his developing relationship with the FBI, raising the stakes as he grows bolder in his actions and business dealings. Bulger starts out relatively likable then progresses into psychopathy, killing people in broad daylight and being genuinely scary with his newfound power. In lesser hands the character would have been no different than any other Irish gangster and Depp made him a straight-up horror movie monster. His particular whispering cadence and general appearance plays a big part in enhancing Bulger’s presence, but his eyes sell it more. Depp wears these bright blue color contacts and like all color contacts, they hide pupil dilation. As a result he looks like a predator for most of the runtime and Depp knows it, keeping his eyes wide open and hardly blinking when he is not wearing sunglasses. The image of his face alone is enough to inspire fear.
The rest of the cast was acceptable, but I do not blame them as they struggled to keep up. I am sure all of them knew they were secondary to Depp and made the most of it by dueling Boston accents. Edgerton felt a little generic as the crooked agent that has to justify Bulger’s madness. He reminds me of Matt Damon’s character from The Departed if Colin were more obvious about his intentions. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Bulger’s brother, but he does not do much in his allotted time. A host of other known actors show up like Kevin Bacon, Peter Sarsgaard, Adam Scott, and Corey Stoll, and do nothing that warrants mention.
Black Mass had issues with its style as suspense-thrillers can be difficult to film in the wrong hands. While director Scott Cooper does a good job, there were plenty of missed opportunities to put the acting on full display and let the cast drive scenes. Between some great shots are too many cuts to different angles that would have been better served in a minimalist fashion. The long shot method is made specifically for performance driven movies and for building tension and it was used only once. If Paul Thomas Anderson were behind the camera this would not be a problem.
Regardless, Black Mass is the kind of gangster movie that does not come around too often. It shows the reality of crime and the kind of people behind it in an unfiltered light. Most of all, it is Johnny Depp’s return to making good movies with his most memorable character yet. Go see it.