Black Mass is a gritty and fascinating film depicting James "Whitey" Bulger and the corruption throughout Boston in the 1970s and 80s, and is cinema that won't easily be forgotten.
Currently with the release of huge blockbuster movies, such as Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War on the horizon, gangster films and biopics are perhaps taking a back-seat. However, Black Mass is a film that could potentially bring this genre of film back into the spotlight, with an explosive plot, an impressive cast, and an edgy, uncouth style. Many gangster films can become overly romanticised, and make the error of portraying the gangsters to be good at heart and simply forced into a bad life, and while this may be the case for some, it is certainly not the case for the majority. Black Mass is a refreshing change to a more accurate depiction of how a successful gangster would be, a calculated psychopath.
A gritty and bleak film, Black Mass combines scenes of vicious mob activity with a complex relationship at the heart of the action. Johnny Depp unsurprisingly gives a fantastic performance as James “Whitey” Bulger, a brutal and strict gangster whose childhood relationship with FBI Agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) results in Bulger becoming an informant for the FBI, while they turn a blind eye to his ever-growing regime. The conflict of Bulger’s relationships goes further, with his brother being President of the Massachusetts Senate, Billy Bulger (Benedict Cumberbatch). The film is also quite cleverly entirely retrospective, through being told by members of the Winter Hill gang in snippets of them testifying against Bulger, and despite this seemingly complex writing, the film stays mostly on track.
Depp’s depiction of Bulger is charismatic and thrilling, whilst still chilling and uncomfortable. The facial augmentation of Depp is partly responsible, with the pale blue eyes and grey teeth, the dead cold nature of his character is visible before he even speaks. One scene with the revelation of a recipe or ‘family secret’ is particularly chilling, presenting Bulger to be unpredictable and dangerous. Bulger’s malevolent ruthlessness is perhaps best shown in a scene with a young woman, where he consoles her over her gratitude at him giving her a house, and then moments later suffocating her remorselessly. Several times in the film Bulger is consoling or acting friendly, before an outburst of violence, a technique that keeps the audience nervous in Bulger’s presence, a fantastic quality to the film.
Where Black Mass falters is in its genre being slightly confused, and the lack of depth or background into characters. Being a biopic about a notorious gangster, the film remains vague about Bulger’s past or his rise to becoming a gangster, with Bulger being at mostly at the same status and temperament for the entire film. This is maybe due to the expected “rise and fall” plot line that many gangster films follow, such as Goodfellas, and American Gangster, and one that is usually very successful and allows sympathy and understanding for the plight of the characters. I undoubtedly found myself slightly disappointed at this lack of plot style and background information in a film that was entirely retrospective. Having said this, Black Mass does remain true to its characters, is continuously exciting throughout, and does not become too self-indulgent like The Godfather trilogy.
The capricious nature of Depp’s character, and Depp’s screen presence is arguably what saves this flaw, as it distracts from the observation that Bulger does not change at any point in the film. Arguably the name James Bulger may be better known in the US, however his notoriety is small with a UK audience, therefore needing more information about the character, or a previous knowledge of Whitey Bulger. Developments in character are more noticeable in FBI agent John Connolly, with Joel Edgerton subtly changing throughout the film, as his character delves deeper into corruption, and a performance that is unfortunately over-shadowed by Depp.
With Black Mass being based on true events, the film creates an eye opening theme of corruption, and with the relationship between the three men being so strong, this is perhaps a comment on the similarity between a Senator, an FBI agent and a notorious gangster. One Winter Hill gang member summarises this perfectly, within a quote with “We went straight from playing cops and robbers on the playground, to doing it for real on the streets.”
Black Mass (2015), directed by Scott Cooper, is distributed in the UK by Warner Bros. Pictures. Certificate 15.