In 2011, after 12 years on the run, James Bulger, one of the most notorious Irish mobsters in Boston, was captured and faced 32 counts of racketeering, including 19 murder charges. Black Mass, a movie controversial among those who lived through the events, depicts the rise of Bulger from small-time crook to mob kingpin.
Black Mass follows the development of the relationship between James “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp) and FBI Agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), in which Bulger would (allegedly) work as an informant to help clean up the mafia in Boston, in return for protection from the FBI. Through depicting this relationship, the movie covers nearly twenty years of Bulger’s criminal activity. Mixed into the dynamic are Bulger’s brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch), a politician; skeptical FBI agents Charles McGuire (Kevin Bacon) and Robert Fitzpatrick (Adam Scott); and Bulger’s cronies in the Winter Hill Gang, Kevin Weeks (Jesse Plemons), Steve Flemmi (Rory Cochrane), and John Martorano (W. Earl Brown). Between pressures at home and at work, Connolly puts everything on the line for his Southie loyalties, reaping both big rewards and consequences.
The performances in Black Mass are the most compelling part of the film by far. There are some problems with pacing and with creativity, but the ensemble cast does a superb job. Depp is especially good, delivering the type of deep character work he is known for in a performance better than he has given in years. The extent to which he humanizes Bulger through his charm and the depth of the emotion he brings to the role is unnerving, creating a three-dimensional portrait of a man I did not want to relate to. His work is so subtle that he actually makes Joel Edgerton look more hammy than his character called for. Jesse Plemons, who you might recognize from Friday Night Lights or Breaking Bad gives a breakout performance. After knowing him primarily as an awkward teenager, his portrayal of a rough, full-grown gang member was impressive and memorable. Finally, I was not sure if I could buy Benedict Cumberbatch as Bulger’s brother, and his accent never quite sounded right either. I started to wonder if he was affecting a posher accent to help his political career or if Cumberbatch couldn’t quite lose his British accent in this part.
Parts for women are scarce in Black Mass. As Marianne Connolly, Julianne Nicholson has a breathtaking scene opposite Depp, but spends most of the movie scolding her husband, as wives often do in this genre. Meanwhile, Dakota Johnson, as Lindsey Cyr, the mother of Bulger’s son, has her own beautifully played emotional scene with Depp. Women in the film only ever get one great scene, which makes them seem like punctuation marks, signaling transitions in the lives of the men, rather than actual people who played an active part in the narrative. The result is an imbalance not only in the depiction of the community, but also in the pacing of the film.
About two thirds of the way through Black Mass, I started to have a hard time following or paying attention to the story. What started out as an interesting character study and a tense look at a corrupt relationship began to meander through the later years of Bulger’s career. While the script seems to be trying to show the monstrous actions that lead Bulger’s men to turn on him, the tension wanes and the finale of the film feels more like a laundry list than a climax. These narrative issues paired with the by-the-book cinematography and make the acting the only really interesting part of the movie.
For the stellar acting paired with otherwise hum-drum film-making, I rate Black Mass 3/5 stars.
Black Mass was written by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth and directed by Scott Cooper. It runs 122 minutes and is rated R for a lot of bad language, drug references, sexual references, and a lot of murder. It’s about Whitey Bulger.
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