BLACK MASS. Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Kevin Bacon, Jesse Plemons. Directed by Scott Cooper. 122 minutes.Rated MA15+ (Strong violence and coarse language).
The film follows the life of notorious Boston gangster James ‘Whitey’ Bulger, an amoral, cruel and violent thug whose criminal empire was protected by the FBI as part of an information exchange deal. If you can stomach his brutality, it provides a fascinating, ‘stranger than fiction’ tale fuelled by two powerhouse lead performances.
The year is 1975, and Bulger is starting to make a name for himself in South Boston. Muscling in on the Italian Mafia’s territory, a rivalry begins to develop. Bulger’s childhood pal, John Connolly, who now works for the FBI, sees an opportunity to take down the Mafia in the area, and approaches Bulger’s brother Billy, who is now President of the Massachusetts State Senate. Billy puts the two men in touch, and to misquote ‘Casablanca’, a beautiful friendship begins.
The narrative is strung along using a hackneyed framing device of various police interrogations or Bulger’s Winter Hill Gang. Despite how this grates, the story is too bizarre and absorbing to suffer. Connolly warns Bulger that the Mafia are planning to kill him. Hoping to protect his wife and young son, Bulger strikes a deal with Connolly, providing him with information about the Mafia. He is adamant: it’s “not rattin’, just business”. In return, Connolly promises the Feds will turn a blind eye to Bulger, essentially allow his criminal empire to blossom unchecked.
Moving forward in time, and Bulger has become more brazen – he offers little information or assistance to the Feds, and violates the terms of his agreement by carrying out several murders, but he has pulled Connolly deeply into his operations, implicating him in all the crimes. After his son is killed by a shock illness, Bulger becomes more unstable, and consolidates enormous power to become the local ‘crime lord’. Meanwhile, internal machinations in the FBI begin to question Bulger’s worth as an asset, and Connolly struggles to keep himself above suspicion. The production design handles the retro periods well with pastel interiors, as do the costumes with an array of leather jackets and three-piece suits.
As the (reportedly) true story visits even stranger subplots (Bulger shipping arms to the IRA for one) on its way to the inevitable conclusion where the bad guys get their just desserts, all you can do is sit back and marvel.
In the lead role, Depp is an absolute firecracker. He reportedly remained in character on set, and Bulger’s real life associates who visited the set were reportedly too frightened to speak to him – you can see why. Steely and psychotic, he threatens to blow at any moment, creating a true portrait of evil. It is easily his best work in years. As Connolly, Australia’s Joel Edgerton has a more difficult role, as his arc takes him from hopeful newcomer to floundering co-conspirator. He handles the complexity bravely, never shying from its unsavoury elements, and should deservedly feature alongside Depp come awards season. Both men, and the rest of its sprawling but solid cast, are ably assisted by the convincing hair and makeup design, turning out an unrecognisable Depp and crafting believable ageing for the other characters.
‘Black Mass’ is not for everyone – that much is certain. However, interested parties will be rewarded by its implausible but genuine story, and two actors sparring at the top of their respective games.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out October 8.