Little Whitey lies…
Having been hit-and-miss in his previous portrayals of real-life criminals (coke kaiser George Jung in Blow, mobster John Dillinger in Public Enemies), Johnny Depp finally hits the mother lode in Black Mass, an enthralling portrait of Boston bruiser James ‘Whitey’ Bulger that halts the star’s mid-career slump with all the force of a baseball bat in the kisser.
Barely recognisable behind a balding pate, ice-blue contact lenses and a pirate-y bad tooth (perhaps the only link here to captain Jack Sparrow), Depp serves up a chillingly amoral turn that will almost certainly secure his fourth Oscar nomination. Yet he’s far from the only reason to catch Scott Cooper’s (Out Of The Furnace) gripping cops and robbers tale, a film that, like The Departed before it, blurs the lines that separate these supposedly inviolable factions.
Divided, overly neatly maybe, into three acts that span a decade (1975 to 1985) of nefarious activity, Black Mass tells how Bulger, a small-time hood from Boston’s close-knit ‘Southie’ neighbourhood, was encouraged to turn snitch by an old schoolmate turned G-Man who was prepared to give him a free pass if he helped bring down the city’s Italian-American Mafiosi.
Out to impress and keen to advance, FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) thinks he has made the deal of the century. Once the gangsters are gone, though, Whitey swiftly sets about shoring up his own illegal empire, knowing he has too much on Connolly for the Feds to intervene.
With its beatings, shootings, stabbings and throttlings, Cooper’s film certainly doesn’t want for GoodFellas-style carnage. Yet Black Mass is the rare crime saga in which the dialogue scenes carry an even greater charge. Cooper’s clearly fully aware that two great actors going head to head in a room can be as potent as any bullet ballet or ruthless execution.
A scene in which Connolly attempts to ensnare Bulger’s Teflon politician brother (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a treat to behold, as is that much-trailed episode in which Depp goes Joe Pesci on one of Edgerton’s subordinates.
In a film in which even the lowliest thug gets a moment to shine, though, it’s a shame the female characters are so poorly shaped and scripted: the likes of Dakota Johnson, Julianne Nicholson and Juno Temple spending the majority of their screen time being harangued or mistreated.