When FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) brings Boston gangster Whitey Bulger (Johnny Depp) on board as a top-level informant, the line between cop and criminal begins to blur.
A group of gangsters drive out to a remote location. One of them is a motormouth, so focused on firing his gob off that he can’t see what’s about to come: a bullet to the brain. Stop us if you’ve seen this one before, in GoodFellas, sundry Godfathers and a thousand other Mafia movies that don’t begin with ‘G’. Thankfully, this is as clichéd as Scott Cooper’s Black Mass gets.
That might be because it’s based on a story that, however improbable, is true. Whitey Bulger was a notorious Boston gangster, with a crusading senator for a brother. He did get into bed with the FBI. He did use their influence to help clear his path to the top.
It might also be because Cooper assiduously avoids a Scorsese/Coppola impression, ditching showy camerawork in favour of establishing a tone that starts ditch-dark and becomes increasingly corrosive and oppressive. And it might be because it’s not just a gangster flick.
The crucial decision here, by Cooper and his writers Mark Mallouk and British playwright Jez Butterworth, is to split the focus equally between Bulger (Johnny Depp) and his FBI handler Connolly (Joel Edgerton), a childhood friend of Bulger’s whose strange loyalty to, and almost hero worship of Bulger leads to his downfall. As Connolly slowly succumbs to corruption, Edgerton — skyscraper of hair jutting above his perpetually furrowed brow — is excellent. He’s the standout in a superb ensemble cast (Peter Sarsgaard, Benedict Cumberbatch, Kevin Bacon), and more than holds his own opposite the star attraction, Depp.
He hasn't been this intense or vital in years. Welcome back, Johnny.
Depp, of course, has had a rough couple of years. If Australia isn’t threatening to shoot his dogs one minute, then he’s making terrible movies the next. Seemingly lost in a sea of gurning caricatures, it feels like it’s been an age since we saw Depp deliver. He does here, but with caveats. There’s no question that the black mass of the title refers to Bulger, a human cancer slowly destroying everything and everyone around him. There’s also a satanic aura about him, reinforced by Depp’s commitment to looking like the real-life Whitey. The rotting teeth, scaly skin, chalk-white hair and blazing blue eyes are a million miles away from mugging with a moustache, but his otherworldly look may be counter-productive. As powerful as the performance is, it’s ultimately damaged when you’re constantly reminded that that’s just what it is: a performance. Still, he hasn’t been this intense or vital in years. Welcome back, Johnny.
Compelling and powerfully acted, with just enough wrinkles to avoid the ghosts of gangster movies past. Depp's appearance might distract some, but it's good to see him back in the groove.