Johnny Depp leads an impressive ensemble cast in this well-made story about not only Whitey Bulger, but the FBI agents who empowered his reign as Boston's crime boss for two decades. Unlike The Departed, the movie's dark gritty opening immediately sets the tone for viewers who want to see a realistic mobster movie. Depp's Whitey Bulger is not his typical flamboyant performance, but instead a thoughtful character study of a frightening stone killer completely devoid of conscience.
Director Scott Cooper helps paint a picture of Bulger through his relationship with his young son, who has been caught fighting at school. Bulger explains to the boy that the trick is not to be seen.
"It's not what you do - it's where and when you do it."
Bulger's rise to power is quick and his menace is displayed through numerous set pieces all involving him killing or threatening someone. When challenged to a fight by one of his gang members Bulger tells him:
"Take your shot but make it your best, cause if I get up I eat you."
Bulger's rapid ascent continues because of his alliance with FBI agent Connelly, a boyhood friend from South Boston. Connelly wrongly assumes he can fast track his career by having Bulger feed him information about the Italian mob, who FBI boss Charles McGuire (Kevin Bacon) is intent on bringing down. The relationship is one sided and as Bulger's empire grows, Connelly falls deeper into the abyss.
Director Cooper and screenwriters Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth do an excellent job of condensing a long complex story into a two hour film. In 2012 I reviewed Betrayal (a book about Bulger) for this site, and have since wondered if a film could tell the story and I'm happy to say the filmmakers have succeeded.
The list of amazing actors in Black Mass could populate a formidable theatre company and I was especially impressed with Peter Sarsgaard as a small time criminal coke head, Adam Scott as an honest FBI agent and Julianne Nicolson as Connelly's tormented wife. Joel Edgarton is excellent as Connelly and rather than chewing the scenery, Benedict Cumberbatch gives a subtle modulated performance as Bulger's brother Billy.
Most importantly, after a string of flops, Depp gives a brilliant performance in a movie well worth seeing.