Black Mass

 

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Boston’s famous gangster James ‘Whitey’ Bulger, notorious from the 1970s onwards, gets the big screen treatment providing an unexpected role for the hardly recognisable Johnny Depp.

 

Johnny Depp

 

When the 2003 drama Out of the Furnace appeared here, I praised the direction of Scott Cooper and his work on Black Mass does not disappoint. This is the latest Hollywood gangster piece, a genre which, thanks largely to Scorsese, has survived with greater confidence than the western. Bulger, the central character here, led an Irish-American gang in Boston also home to the Italian Mafia and he seems to have been a psychopath. Capable of extreme violence, he was also a family man whose young son died and, coming from a poor background, he remained close to his brother Billy whose contrasted aspirations led to his becoming a state senator.


If the two sides of Whitey Bulger can only be shown rather than explained, Depp’s portrayal softens nothing and is comparable to Tom Hardy’s Ronnie Kray in Legend. The film’s other key role is that of FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) who has grown up with the brothers and is therefore able to persuade Whitey to become an informant for the FBI. It’s an arrangement whereby Whitey can get at his Italian rivals but, until a new high-up arrives on the scene, it also leads to the FBI turning a blind eye to Whitey’s increasing violence.


Covering over two decades and with a more recent coda, Black Mass has a lot of material to get through and the authentic events make for a busy but episodic work with no character to root for and a sense of one thing leading to another rather than providing any real climaxes. Ultimately this is able rather than memorable despite the very talented cast (the presence of Benedict Cumberbatch as Billy is something of an oddity, however, since it is a standard supporting role and neither a star part nor a striking cameo).


Although on this occasion Cooper had no hand in the script, the most memorable feature of Black Mass links with the subtleties of characterisation and atmosphere in Out of the Furnace. Here it is the opportunity in a male-dominated genre for actresses to make an impact. If Juno Temple contributes to this, even more so Dakota Johnson as Whitey’s partner and Julianne Nicholson as Donovan’s wife are given compelling scenes. Indeed a potentially menacing encounter between Depp and Nicholson has more tension than any other scene.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dakota Johnson, Kevin Bacon, Peter Sarsgaard, Julianne Nicholson, Jesse Plemons, Juno Temple.


Dir Scott Cooper, Pro John Lesher, Brian Oliver, Cooper and others, Screenplay Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth based on the book by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill, Ph Masanobu Takayanagi, Pro Des Stefania Cella, Ed David Rosenbloom, Music Tom Holkenborg, Costumes Kasia Walicka Maimone.


Warner Bros. Pictures/Ratpac-Dune Entertainment/a Cross Creek Pictures production etc.-Warner Bros.
123 mins. USA/UK. 2015. Rel: 27 November 2015. Cert. 15.