“If nobody sees it, it didn’t happen.” James “Whitey” Bulger lived by those words, and now millions of people can see what “didn’t happen” in the thrilling movie based on real events, “Black Mass.”
“Black Mass” chronicles the rise of Bulger (Johnny Depp), an ex-convict who returns to South Boston to lead the Winter Hill Gang. Bulger’s horizons expand when an old friend who had become an FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) offers him federal protection in exchange for information on the Italian Mafia in Boston.
Bulger, who kills a large number of “rats” throughout the movie, accepts to inform in his special way. While the FBI goes after other criminals, Bulger builds connections and becomes involved with drugs, murders and the Irish Republican Army. Meanwhile, his brother, William “Billy” Bulger (Benedict Cumberbatch), becomes a Boston senator and walks a fine line between keeping a relationship with his brother and avoiding any knowledge of the Winter Hill Gang.
The film covers a lot of ground, starting in the 1970s and ending in 2011, but the story is easy to follow. Even people who have never heard of Bulger will understand the most important parts of who died and why – something difficult for most true crime films like “American Hustle.” The movie begins from one perspective, but decides to follow other character’s points of view somewhere in the middle, which can be rattling. Other than that, the movie has a direction and follows it until the very end.
The cinematography helps to add to the purposeful discomfort of the film. Close-ups on Bulger’s face and lingering shots of brutal murders are cringe-worthy for the right reasons. The movie feels real and raw. Adding to this element is the soundtrack, or lack thereof. Huge chunks of the movie are devoid of musical accompaniment. The music starts with a low drawl when something bad has happened, a lingering effect of a gunshot or punch.
The real magic that brings this movie together is the all-star cast. All the actors brought their A-game and a distinct Boston accent to the movie. It takes some adjusting to, but eventually Benedict Cumberbatch seems more northeastern than British.
Of all the stars, however, Johnny Depp shines the brightest behind the makeup. This is Depp’s second time playing a gangster. Six years ago he played 1930s robber John Dillinger in “Public Enemies.” While his performance as Dillinger was lackluster – possibly due to direction – his portrayal of Bulger is nothing less than chilling. He has a sharp, dead look throughout the entire film – a look that could kill.
Edgerton is the foil to Depp’s violent killer. Connolly never reaches the low depths of Bulger, yet he comes across just as dirty. He sinks lower and lower as the movie progresses while Bulger stays on the same ground, something that can only happen when writing, directing and acting transcend the norm.
Overall, “Black Mass” exceeds one’s expectations. While it is consistently violent, it needs to be so in order to portray Bulger’s merciless melee of murders. The story flows well, with only a few pacing problems from the narration perspective; but the extraordinary acting is the real reason to see the film.
Rating: 4/5 stars