In a world where superhero movies reign supreme, seeing a well put together realistic crime-drama is a breath of fresh air. “Black Mass,” is both literally and figuratively a dark film. If what you want from a movie is a fun, family-friendly laughfest, turn around and run. But if mid-20th century organized crime stories are of any interest to you, (think “The Godfather” or “Goodfellas”) then go to your nearest theater as soon as possible and see this film.
Director Scott Cooper brings to life the violent and disturbing story of real-life Boston crime boss James “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp), which includes his involvement with the FBI as a valued informant and his rise to power under their protection. Set during the mid-1970s up until Whitey’s arrest in 2011, “Black Mass” takes place primarily on the streets of “Southie” (south Boston), where FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) seeks out the assistance of his old friends Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Bulger in order to take down some of Boston’s most powerful criminals, who happen to be after Bulger’s’ head. Though adamantly against “rats,” Bulger agrees to form an “alliance” with agent Connolly in order to take out his enemies and consequently increase the influence of his own crime organization, the Winter Hill Gang.
“Black Mass’” strengths run deep; from its consistently fantastic acting, to its atmospheric soundtrack and visuals. The cast and crew are bound to win a few awards for this piece. Depp’s performance as James “Whitey” Bulger in particular stood out from the rest. Half the time, I completely forgot it was Depp playing the role — I sat down in the theater thinking that he’s just too strongly associated with characters like Captain Jack Sparrow to be capable of becoming the monster of a man that is Whitey Bulger. I was pleasantly surprised, to say the least. Cumberbatch as Whitey’s brother and Massachusetts state senator William Bulger was also a standout; his position as Whitey’s orderly well-mannered younger brother served to be a near-perfect antithesis to Whitey’s chaotic personality. From Joel Edgerton as agent John Connolly to Peter Sarsgaard as the psychopath drug-addict Brian Halloran, the entire supporting cast gave phenomenal performances deserving of Oscar nominations. You read that correctly.
The only aspect of the film worthy of any dispute would be its soundtrack. Put simply, the soundtrack isn’t anything special. Movie soundtracks play an important role in the quality and memorability of any given movie as a whole. The “Black Mass’” soundtrack isn’t memorable, but that’s okay. When scenes weren’t accompanied by an ominous silence, most of the music was somewhat generic, background orchestration, and because it doesn’t distract from the more dramatic scenes, it worked. This isn’t meant to be a flashy action-adventure movie with an equally flashy soundtrack — “Black Mass” is meant to bring to light the atrocities committed by Bulger and his Winter Hill Gang, under the protection of a corrupt FBI, and the film’s soundtrack (or lack thereof) adequately supports the mostly somber and tense atmosphere surrounding the events portrayed.
Despite being an overall outstanding film, “Black Mass” did suffer from a few distracting visual hiccups. In particular, the makeup for some of the characters, including Depp’s Whitey and Jesse Plemons’ Kevin Weeks, appeared to be overdone and even exaggerated in some of the early scenes of the movie. Especially with director Scott Cooper’s emphasis on close-up’s, the makeup was often distracting, and I was tugged away from a few otherwise deep and atmospheric scenes. Depp’s bright blue contacts had a similar effect; in a movie that’s otherwise grounded in reality, the obvious contact lenses were a distraction during some of the film’s most intense moments.
“Black Mass” is fantastic. Its flaws are few and far between, while its outstanding performances are consistent throughout. This is a must-see for fans of the organized-crime genre, stories set in ‘70s and ‘80s and criminology majors alike. I’d even say this is a must-see for anybody that enjoys a good movie (and has the patience for a movie not produced by Marvel or DC).
Keep the kids home for this one.
Rating: 4 stars