Crime biopics are a dime a dozen in the history of cinema. Many are among the greatest films of all time, and if done correctly it’s a strong recipe for success. There are some bad ones also, and some that fall in between. Black Mass is another such crime biopic, about a lesser known figure named James ‘Whitey’ Bulger, who terrorized the streets of Boston for a number of years, using an informant relationship with the FBI to avoid prosecution and build his empire. It’s a unique tale in actual fact, as most of these criminals are avoiding the law, not working with them. That concept, paired with a strong cast set up Black Mass for success.
The films main antagonist, Whitey Bulger is played by Johnny Depp. He underwent quite a physical change to take on the creepy, blonde haired and bright blue eyed appearance of Mr. Bulger and it really paid off. He looked completely horrifying, but without looking like a cartoon. In terms of the character himself, Depp was brilliant, and gave us just another example of his ridiculous range as an actor. He manages to evoke our sympathy in one moment, and then make us cringe at the sight of his evil and rage. One of his best performances.
Supporting Depp is a surprisingly A-List cast. Joel Edgerton plays the films ‘protagonist’ (if you can really claim the film has one), an FBI agent and former friend of Bulger, who sets up the marriage from hell between the FBI and Bulger’s gang. Benedict Cumberbatch is great as Bulger’s younger brother, a senator in their home city. Kevin Bacon, David Harbour and Adam Scott put in convincing supporting roles as fellow FBI agents, and Corey Stoll adds a late appearance. Nobody really comes off poorly here.
The story itself is intriguing and is developed effectively by the writers and director Scott Cooper. Things move along at a steady pace, but don’t ever get dull. There’s a nice mixture of character development, story points and action, with enough random acts of violence to keep the blood thirsty crowd happy, but more importantly, to remind us just how bad Bulger’s crew were. These moments are usually well timed, to put us in that awkward position where we’re torn between Bulger the caring and over-loving father, and Bulger the violent killer. It’s not groundbreaking, but it’s effective and well done.
At the end of the day, the film was always going to live and die with Depp. The story is a little unique compared to other crime biopics, but at the end of the day it’s still a crime biopic. It’s crimes, it’s murders and it’s complex characters. Depp’s performance was the key and he delivered. The films most memorable moments are when he really turns up the creep, and evil. An encounter with his friends wife. A tense dinner table scene reminiscent of Joe Pesci in Goodfellas. A ruthless, merciless killing as we stare into his bright blue eyes. It’s all fantastic stuff.
All in all, I was not completely blown away by the film, but I absolutely enjoyed it and it’s one of the most solid, well made films of its kind in a while. The entire cast put in strong showings and Depp carries it home with his brilliance. If you’re a fan of the genre, it’s worth your money.