If you’re the kind of Johnny Depp fan who despairs every time another of his family films goes on to make bazillions (Pirates of the Caribbean, Rango, Alice In Wonderland) while another of his more adult-targeted fare tanks (The Tourist, Mortdecai, The Rum Diary, Transcendence), you can finally breathe easy.
It might say something particular that his first great grown up role in years is playing another criminal like he did in Donnie Brasco (where he was actually pretending to be a criminal) and Public Enemies, but that’s best left to his therapist.
Yes it’s showy and ‘actorly’, but Depp’s portrayal of the balding, ghost-eyed James ‘Whitey’ Bulger is the best role he’s played since the little-seen The Libertine.
Bulger is a coiled snake waiting to strike and not shy of doing so at the slightest provocation, a screen villain in the same class as Don Logan (Ben Kinglsey in Sexy Beast) or Anton Chigurgh (Javier Bardem in No Country For Old Men), a monster whose very presence oozes threat.
In the 1970s, Bulger leads the Winter Hill Gang on the mean streets of South Boston, competing with the Italian mob for control of the local rackets.
But Bulger is going to get an edge in the war to run organised crime. His childhood friend John Connor (Joel Edgerton) is a special agent for the FBI, and convinces his higher ups he can work with Bulger as an informant to take down the ruling criminal class from the North side.
His boss (Kevin Bacon) reluctantly agrees, and Connor virtually gives Bulger the keys to the city, the latter embarking on an enterprise of expansion that leaves a trail of bodies in his wake, engineering the agreement with Connor to give the FBI far less than the free pass it gives him and his goons.
By the mid 80s the years of erstwhile protection and impunity afforded to Bulger makes him a worse threat to public order than the mobsters he deposed ever were, Connor complicit in the whole tawdry, blood-soaked mess. Stranger still is that Whitey’s older brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a rising Senator poised to become the most powerful politician in Massachusetts.
Director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart), working on a script based on a non-fiction book about Bulger and the FBI, has talked about it being the story of brothers and ties, but that aspect of the narrative is actually the least impactful. It can be argued Black Mass is a more generic crime thriller than anyone involved intended it to be, but it has such style it hardly matters.
If there’s a competition to see who can out-Scorsese Scorsese at this kind of thing, Cooper’s the front-runner. He directs with kinetic, muscular energy and his characters are almost all either thugs and murderers or the long-suffering women in their orbits. While the story might not be anything groundbreaking, the performances, cast and sense of style all make Black Mass one of the best crime thrillers in ages.