This film had been on my list of ones to watch in 2015 and I wasn’t disappointed during my last trip to this year’s London Film Festival on Friday night. It’s a compelling, absorbing, tension-filled story, which certainly isn’t for the squeamish.
Based on the 2001 book, the film tells the story of the world of organized crime in 1970s and 1980s Boston, where the New England Mafia family, the Angiulo Brothers, controlled the north while the Irish-American gang led by James “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp) resided in the south, but were growing ever more ambitious. Determined to gain some control of the situation, the FBI saw an opportunity and agreed to make a deal with Bulger, seeing him as the lesser of two evils – he would be their informant, secretly providing information to help bring down his rivals and in return they would protect him, a deal which is championed by Agent John Connolly, who grew up with the Bulgers. However, the result works much more to the benefit of Bulger rather than the FBI, as his gang grows stronger in Boston, elevating him to become a notorious gangster and effectively making him untouchable.
It’s an interesting and frightening look at not only the world of violent crime in the era, but also how power corrupts, as soon the actions of Connolly and some of his colleagues become as questionable as those of the criminals they were seeking to stop. It also demonstrates how gangsters don’t just appear; Bulger’s rise wouldn’t have happened without the FBI’s actions.
The script by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth (the genius behind the brilliant play Jerusalem) is tight and well-paced and together with director Scott Cooper they have produced a film that keeps you engaged and gripped throughout, aided by a quality ensemble cast.
The acting as a whole is very strong, which is to be expected from such a great cast. However, this is Johnny Depp’s movie. He is the central figure and commands your attention in every moment. Almost unrecognizable thanks to prosthetics; his portrayal of Whitey is utterly chilling. You are in no doubt that he is a very dangerous man and absolutely believe that he could snap at any moment (which he does frequently). The script also brilliantly allows moments where we see the kinder side of him (like all mobsters, he loves his mother, son, brother and little old ladies in his neighbourhood!), but this only makes it more unnerving when in the next scene he is committing cold-blooded murder!
It’s a superb performance from Depp, which I hope receives greater recognition in the awards nominations and without question is his best work for some time (after so much fluff in recent years). Every expression, movement, laugh and look in his eyes feels true to character and quite uncomfortable to watch. He maintains Whitey’s calm exterior perfectly, but also the sensation that he’s a coiled spring, ready to release at any moment, adding to the tension of the piece. The scene around the dinner table included in the trailer has you bracing yourself for him to erupt. In order for the film to have a depth and weight to it, Whitey needed to feel real and frightening and Depp certainly pulls this off.
There are great supporting performances all around him. W.Earl Brown as his go-to executioner Johnny Martorano and Rory Cochrane as fellow gang member Stephen Flemmi, who clearly grows more and more disturbed by Bulger’s actions, are both very well cast. Dakota Johnson also enjoys a tougher (if somewhat small) role here than in 50 Shades, playing the mother of Bulger’s young son. She’s one of the few people who seem to be able to get away with standing up to him.
It also seems incredible that at the time Whitey was committing such dreadful crimes, his brother was the Massachusetts State Senator. Playing the other side of the moral coin to Depp’s crime lord is Benedict Cumberbatch as his brother Billy. Noticeably bulked up in physique for the role, Cumberbatch is a great addition to the ensemble and it’s a shame there aren’t more scenes between him and Depp that delve a little deeper in to their relationship. A man who clearly takes his job seriously, Billy is stuck trying to maintain a balance between his love for his brother and his duty to public office and the strain of this is obvious, as he is clearly aware to a certain extent of what his brother is doing.
Joel Edgerton is also excellent as cocky Agent Connolly, conveying brilliantly his slide from FBI man to an extension of Bulger’s gang, turning a blind eye to Bulger’s crimes and deceiving his superiors about Bulger’s usefulness as a source in order to maintain his ascent to professional success, through his supposed results. Perhaps he really did believe in the beginning that Whitey was the answer to the FBI’s problems, but this seems hard to argue by the end, where his love of power and position, as a result of his link to Bulger, seem to mean more to him than anything else, including his marriage (Julianne Nicholson is also very good as his concerned wife Marianne, who grows ever more fearful of Whitey’s effect on her husband).
Black Mass is a gripping crime drama, which is all the more interesting due to being based on real events. With a strong script brought to the screen by a excellent ensemble, I highly recommend it.
Black Mass is on general release in the UK from 27th November 2015. For those yet to see it, click here for the trailer.