Black Mass

Kate Young
7th Oct 2015

At first glance Black Mass seems like any other gangster film, glorifying the rise and fall of sinister criminals, who tend to live outside of the law, killing and pillaging their way through life.

Black Mass, however, is different. Based on the exhaustively researched book of the same name by Boston Globe reporters Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill (who make cameo appearances in the film). Black Mass chronicles the mean streets of Boston in the early 70’s. Here we are introduced to the blue-eyed James “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp) King Pin of the Winterhill Gang, a group of Irish-Americans who vie for control of criminal activity in South Boston, while his younger Kennedy-esque brother Billy Bulger (Benedict Cumberbatch) is one of the most powerful politicians in the state.

Enter John Connelly (Joel Edgerton) rising star in the FBI ranks, whom just also happens to be a childhood friend. John approaches Whitey to become an “off the record” informant, helping bring down the Italian Mafia. In return the FBI would give him a free pass to conduct his business without any interference. John Connolly is so desperate for power and to be just like Whitey that he ends up falling on his own sword and bringing down the entire operation.

Johnny Depp does an amazing job portraying the charming Whitey, a local legend that’s loved by all. He’s a man who will stop the car and offer to help an old woman carry her groceries into her house and yet the violent monster that lurks underneath is terrifying. Without even skipping a heartbeat he would kill anyone who threatens to bring down the kingdom he’s built. It’s nice to see Depp return to his more dramatic roles; his performance stands out and is the highlight of the film. There is a cobra like stillness that he brings to the character - you're petrified of when and where he will strike.

The main focus of the film is on violence. It's gritty and raw and at times confronting, and at no point is it romanticised or glamorised. There’s no shootouts or action shots. They’re point blank on their intended victim. Whitey Bulger was a man who loved to intimidate and even just hinting at what he would do to you was enough to scare you back into line.

It's hard to tell where you stand with this film. You may, like I did, expect something like The Godfather or Goodfellas, but it lacks a strong point-of-view. In the end it fails to make much of an impression, and I can't really say if I liked it or not. 

If you go in with the expectation that Black Mass is going to be fast paced, bullet dodging, fast tracked car chases, then you will be disappointed. But if dark, moody Boston dramas are your thing (Mystic River, The Town) then this is for you. The movie is character driven, and director Scott Cooper presents the good and evil in all, allowing the viewer to make up their mind on how they perceive all the information given.

Black Mass opens in Australian cinemas on Thursday October 8.