Johnny Depp is on form in this crime thriller, giving a world class performance that is marred somewhat by the film's aimless plot.
Black Mass is a dark, compelling, and surprisingly funny crime thriller. Though it may not be perfect, and indeed lacks a sense of narrative direction, the film absorbs you from start to finish, in no small part thanks to several outstanding performances.
The film is a biopic, chronicling the rise of James “Whitey” Bulger as Boston’s foremost criminal kingpin, and the FBI agent, John Connolly, who aided his rise. Bulger and Connolly are played by Johnny Depp and Joel Edgerton, respectively, who head an impressive cast including Benedict Cumberbatch, Kevin Bacon, and Corey Stoll. All of the cast perform well, but it is Depp who takes the crown in a scintillating return to form.
Exuding a kind of repulsive charm, he dominates the film with his balding, ghostly character. A long way from his goofy Tim Burton performances of late, Depp shows why he is still one of Hollywood’s foremost character actors here, switching from funny and kind-hearted to frighteningly brutal at the drop of a hat, and never letting up the aura of menace he imbibes Bulger with.
As a character study (of both Bulger and Connolly), Black Mass is superb. Both characters are excellently portrayed and excellently written, with Scott Cooper’s direction flitting from scene to scene, character to character, never staying too long to bore, nor too fleetingly to confuse. Instead, we get a broad, full vision of the two main characters and their lives, punctuated by moments of uncomfortable violence to keep us on our toes, and to make sure the brutality of Bulger is never too far from our thoughts.
A character study alone though, does not necessarily make for a good film. While the main characters are fascinating to watch, Cooper’s focus on them leads to the supporting character being side-lined. This wouldn’t be a problem were it not for the fact that so many of them are played by famous faces. What you end up with is Benedict Cumberbatch, Kevin Bacon, and co. popping up but not really doing anything, and with actors of their stature you really expect them to. You spend the film wondering when they’ll jump into action, instead of being enthralled by Depp’s astonishing performance.
Similarly, the focus on Bulger and Connolly ends up detracting from the story, in that the film’s final third seems slightly directionless. Though everything concludes, it doesn’t do so nicely. There’s no tense build up, no euphoric victory for the good guy or thrilling finale for the bad guy. It just comes to a close in a quite abrupt fashion.
That being said, Black Mass is still a very, very good film. Its flaws don’t ruin it so much as hold it back from being one of the best of the year. It is a film that you should definitely go and see, so that you can marvel at Johnny Depp’s astounding, award-worthy performance, it just maybe isn’t a film that you would hurry to watch again.
Black Mass (2015), directed by Scott Cooper, is being shown as part of the 2015 BFI London Film Festival. Further information about the film including screening times and ticket information can be found here.