Review: Black Mass

Johnny Depp headlines this Boston crime lord biopic with a transformative performance, but excellence isn’t only reserved for him.

Between 1975 and 1986, James Bulger started out as a low level criminal, but with a friend from the school yard now in the FBI and a senator for a younger brother, Bulger gained immunity for everything and anything and quickly took total control of Boston’s criminal underground. Black Mass follows the true events of one of America’s most wanted criminals, who was only put away four years ago in 2011.

If you know about Black Mass, and if you go to see Black Mass, chances are it is because of Depp. At a comparably low point in his career (packed with pantomime performances in Into the Woods, Mortdecai, Dark Shadows and The Lone Ranger)  he had lost a lot of credibility with critics and fans. But most people in the know took notice of the surprisingly dark, edgy and dramatic trailer for Black Mass.
Depp is absolutely on fire in the film, destroying the doubt that had developed over the years about his abilities; he is transformed with a layered complex character and an almost reptilian make-up job. Scaly, pockmarked skin, icy blue eyes, receding hair and brown teeth, the transformation is cosmetically subtle but Depp mental transformation completes it. Often the familiar celebrity vanishes, replaced with a sinister, yet driven criminal.

But, as with most biopics and dramas, a lot relies on the supporting cast, tone and editing as much as the lead star can indeed carry the film. However there is no fat to be trimmed here, no compromises. As if inspired by Depp’s own transformation, supporting cast Benedict Cumberbatch, Joel Edgerton, Kevin Bacon and others all give great performances. Cumberbatch pulls off a convincing Boston accent as Bulger’s own brother, the two are convincing together, and Edgerton plays the slowly self-defeating, delusional FBI officer excellently.

The film is a hard edged and hollow affair. Bulger’s highest point is at the start, with a wife and child and a seemingly honourable view of his neighbourhood, yet he still executed his own men liberally. From there on, we get a slow, seedy growth as his “alliance” with the FBI to wipe out opposing gangs fills him with the power he needs, constantly telling his allies that it is simply “the deal” and “showing loyalty”. He isn’t deluded, he is firm in his black hearted beliefs.
As things grow worse for Bulger, so he only gets stronger and more violent and the FBI start to fight back against their own inner corruption.

I would say that Black Mass draws its line between two films of this year, Foxcatcher and Legend, but unlike the latter it is far more intense, and unlike the former it is far more prominent. I would argue it excels over both, but is a very intense experience, grounded by the fact that the law let all of this happen, terrible events that not only affected central America but also nearly spread to the United Kingdom.

It is really very hard to say what I didn’t like about the film. It delivered what I expected and a little more, and asides from very rare editing choices and a solid but by-the-numbers script, there wasn’t anything wrong with it.

If you want a good, hard edged American crime drama I couldn’t recommend Black Mass more.



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