Three films into his career, Scott Cooper appears to have found a rhythm that suits him. Both Crazy Heart and Out of the Furnace were un-flourishy showcases of the remarkable talents of his actors, and his latest effort Black Mass follows the same pattern, whilst being a lot more entertaining than either of its predecessors. Crazy Heart won Jeff Bridges a long-overdue Oscar, Furnace was further proof of Casey Affleck’s considerable abilities, and now Black Mass is a high-profile comeback for Johnny Depp. After over a decade of playing Jack Sparrow and other characters with the exact same quirks, Depp’s performance as notorious Boston gangster James ‘Whitey’ Bulger proves that he can still be award-winningly good.
The true story of Whitey Bulger is, if not stranger than fiction, then at least on a par with it. A small-time Boston thug at the film’s beginning, he ends up the kingpin of the city, largely down to his hold over the FBI. The Italians owned the local police, so Bulger exploited his childhood friendship with the needy and gullible John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) to get the Bureau to fight his battles for him. He would give them intel on the Italians, who were the biggest fish in Boston, in exchange for being left alone in his own dealings. Without any opposition, he practically became king of Massachusetts. All this was undoubtedly aided by the status of his little brother, Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch). As state senator for Massachusetts, his position discouraged law enforcement from really cracking down on Whitey, and by the time he became too murderous to bear, it was too late.
Uglified to the point where he’s nearly unrecognisable, Depp exudes a magnetic menace as Bulger, his sunken pale eyes genuinely frightening. When he snarls that he’ll eat an unruly underling, a threat that looks silly on paper becomes disconcertingly credible. A sequence where Whitey visits Connolly for dinner sustains an atmosphere of intimidation for a solid ten minutes thanks almost entirely to Depp. Edgerton and Cumberbatch are similarly good – Edgerton as the eternal beta male, even as he climbs the ranks of the FBI and Cumberbatch slimily winning. He doesn’t get as much screen time as you’d like, but every second counts. Jimmy, as Connolly and Billy call Bulger, has a fascinating relationship with these two men, especially Billy, who he seems to genuinely care for. Loyalty means everything to the men who grew up in the Boston projects, even when they’re in a state of constant self-delusion. Whitey insists he’s not a rat as he acts as informant for the FBI, and Connolly desperately tries to convince himself that he’s in control. Gangsters and their allies are really not glamourised in Black Mass, they’re violent idiots and victims of a broken system.
This is an admirable stance for Jez Butterworth and Mark Mallouk’s script to take, but you find yourself wishing that the film would get a move on. A tighter edit would have been welcome, and Black Mass just doesn’t have the energy that makes its clear inspirations so great. The most obvious point of reference would be Scorsese’s Boston-set The Departed, and part of the dinner sequence mentioned above is a conversation about steak sauce that acts as Depp’s version of Joe Pesci’s ‘funny how’ scene in Goodfellas. It’s unfair to compare Black Mass to these films, especially the latter, which remains one of the definitive gangster movies, but Cooper is clearly invoking their spirit, and his spin on the genre doesn’t stack up to Scorsese’s.
Similar problems afflicted Cooper’s Out of the Furnace. By focusing so heavily on getting the best performances possible from his cast (Cooper has been an actor himself), the film’s pacing, in particular, suffers. He’s an unobtrusive director, which works for conversations, but doesn’t make the stuff in-between very exciting. An early betrayal is a properly shocking moment, but the story’s momentum falters and finds itself re-treading the same ground with diminishing returns.
Yet, whenever the strangulations and random shootings threaten to become monotonous, they’re broken up by some compelling interactions between the members of one of the best casts of the year. Jesse Plemons, fattened up immensely as one of Bulger’s enforcers, is great, as is Dakota Johnson in a small role as Bulger’s wife. The scenes she shares with Depp are easily the most powerful in the movie, and help to humanise this larger-than-life crime figure. Peter Sarsgaard is the real scene-stealer of the support though, as livewire smuggler Brian Halloran, the first real threat to Whitey’s operation after he allies with the FBI. Corey Stoll, however, feels wasted in a very minor role, and it’s really sad to see Juno Temple playing the exact same character she’s been given time and again since her Atonement debut.
As a comeback vehicle for Johnny Depp, Black Mass is a fantastic achievement, and the pleasure of seeing a proper movie star giving a great performance should never be underestimated. It’s not going to join the pantheon of the great American crime movies, but it’s an effectively done study of how drive and luck can create a kingpin, anchored by a never better Depp and an almost as good supporting cast.