By Mark Saldana
Rating: 3.5 (Out of 4 Stars)
After a few movie misteps (The Lone Ranger, Transcendence, Mortdecai), Johnny Depp is back in top form and is “badder” than ever. Based on the true story of Boston criminal James “Whitey” Bulger, Black Mass will definitely please fans of the gangster genre and will certainly fascinate people who haven’t already read about or heard the truly shocking and disturbing story of one of America’s most notorious mob bosses. Depp, despite his sometimes silly makeup, brings this frightening character to life, using his charisma to portray a fully dimensional representation of the real person. Director Scott Cooper, his writers, and an excellent supporting cast add even more flavor to an already enticing and juicy story, making Black Mass a movie not to miss.
Whitey Bulger has been involved in criminal activities since his teenage years. In the late 1950s, he serves time at the legendary Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary. By the time he makes parole in the 1960s, his reputation has already made him a legend in his home of Boston. He would go on to build himself into the prominent mob leader of Boston in the 1970s and 80s when he becomes an FBI informant working with Agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton). The teaming of Bulger and Connolly helps bring down Bulger’s competition.
Director Scott Cooper and writers Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth have made an intriguing and disturbing film that does an exceptional job of recreating the life and career of gangster Whitey Bulger. Based on the novel Black Mass by Dick Lehr and Gerald O’Neill, the film focuses mainly on Bulger’s strategy of playing the FBI against his enemies and helps them eliminate the Italian families who had controlled organized crime for so long.
With stark realism and just the right amount cinematic flair, Cooper obviously draws some influence for director Martin Scorsese, a filmmaker well versed in gangster films. Cooper’s film never comes across as a clone though. He brings enough of his own style to the movie and skillfully draws the audience into this fascinating drama and rattles them in all the right moments.
The movie overall is great and has a lovely flow to the pace. The characters are fleshed out wonderfully and nothing story-wise feels contrived or embellished. Just a few days prior to seeing this movie, I watched Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger and was quite pleased with how faithful Cooper’s movie remains to the facts. My only real complaint has to do with Depp’s makeup which sometimes looks ridiculous.
I have to say I found Depp’s makeup distracting in some scenes. In some moments, it works well with the lighting, but in the brighter shots, it looks so over-the-top and cartoonish. I realize that Depp doesn’t look that much like the real Bulger, but it seems like they tried way too hard in the film. I honestly couldn’t care less had the makeup department decided to go with Depp’s natural eye color instead of the day-glow blue eyes that made him look like a vampire.
Thankfully Depp’s performance transcends this issue and helped keep me involved in the story. It truly is an outstanding turn by the actor and I believe he will get recognition for it early next year. I also believe that uber-talented actor Joel Edgerton will also receive some nominations for his performance as John Connolly. After seeing footage of the real Connolly in the documentary Whitey, I can attest to how superb his acting is in the movie. The movie also features excellent performances by Benedict Cumberbatch (Billy Bulger), Dakota Johnson (Lindsey Cyr), Kevin Bacon (Charles McGuire), Peter Saarsgard (Brian Halloran), Jesse Plemons (Kevin Weeks), Rory Cochrane (Steve Flemmi), and David Harbour (John Morris).
So despite some cringeworthy makeup, Depp and his supporting cast and crew have made a movie worthy of the story they are telling. It pleases me to see Depp in a great movie that utilizes his genuine talent, and not another silly comedy where he portrays a bizarre caricature. The movie Black Mass is rated R for disturbing and intense violence, and as desensitized as I pride myself to be, I found myself petrified with fear and disgust as the recreated characters and events played out before me.