Movie Review: “Black Mass”

Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Rory Cochrane, Jesse Plemmons, David Harbour, Kevin Bacon
Scott Cooper

There was a time when Johnny Depp could seemingly do no wrong, but in recent years, he’s mistaken that goodwill for the freedom to do whatever the hell he wants, and it hasn’t really worked out in his favor. Not counting cameos and animated voice work, it’s been a while since Depp delivered a genuinely good performance. (You’d have to go all the way back to 2009’s “Public Enemies,” in which he played another famous gangster, John Dillinger.) But the actor finally stops the rot with his turn as the menacing Whitey Bulger in “Black Mass,” and though it isn’t exactly Oscar worthy, it’s just nice to see him back doing what he does best: creating complex, memorable characters instead of broadly painted caricatures.

The movie opens in 1975 as small-time criminal Jimmy “Whitey” Bulger (Depp) begins to make a name for himself in South Boston with the help of his Winter Hill Gang, including trusted right-hand man Steve Flemmi (Rory Cochrane), hitman John Martorano (W. Earl Brown) and muscle Kevin Weeks (Jesse Plemmons). When one of Whitey’s old childhood friends, FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), returns to Boston to clean up the streets by bringing down the Italian mafia, he suggests that Whitey become his informant – a mutually beneficial business arrangement that would allow John to get rid of the mob and give Whitey free reign over the city. But as John struggles to cover up Whitey’s growing criminal empire, he unknowingly places himself in the FBI’s crosshairs when his superiors begin to question how Whitey continues to get away with murder, sometimes quite literally.

It’s incredible what an actor winning an Academy Award can do for a director’s career, because while Scott Cooper (who led Jeff Bridges to Oscar glory in “Crazy Heart”) has yet to make a great film, the top-notch talent he’s managed to attract for “Black Mass” is an embarrassment of riches. Sadly, many of the supporting players aren’t given much to do. Dakota Johnson has a couple good moments as the mother of Whitey’s son, and Juno Temple shines in her only scene as a prostitute who knows too much about the gang’s affairs, but the rest of the cast (particularly Benedict Cumberbatch as a straight-shooting senator who happens to be Whitey’s younger brother) is wasted in thinly-written roles.

Of course, “Black Mass” is primarily about the precarious, give-and-take relationship between Whitey Bulger and John Connolly, and though both Depp and Edgerton deliver solid work, the former will undoubtedly receive most of the attention for his chilling turn as the notorious gangster. Depp’s physical transformation is slightly off-putting (even if that’s sort of the point), but it’s his best performance in nearly a decade, and his first role in six years that doesn’t feel like he’s just playing dress-up. It’s not an overly showy piece of acting, servicing the story instead of his own self-indulgence for once.

Like Cooper’s 2013 film, “Out of the Furnace,” “Black Mass” is bit of a slow burn, although that comes with the territory. The movie’s biggest problem is that it doesn’t have anything new to say (or a new way to say it) that hasn’t already been done in countless other gangster flicks, and because none of the characters are very empathetic, it comes across as a little cold. That’s not surprising considering the subject matter, but it doesn’t change the fact that, despite being a fairly compelling true-life story with some fine performances, “Black Mass” never attains the greatness to match its ambition. The film is comprised of several excellent setpieces – including a dinner party that features a play on the famous “funny guy” bit from “Goodfellas,” followed by a moment of genuine horror – mixed with tedious filler that makes being a gangster seem a lot less exciting than it sounds. Still, while the movie doesn’t do enough to earn a spot among the classics, “Black Mass” is a satisfying crime thriller that’s worth watching if only for Depp’s impressive return to form.