Black Mass movie review

Johnny Depp's famous features are unrecognisable in Black Mass in which he portrays James "Whitey" Bulger, one of America's most notorious gangsters.


With layers of make-up, creepy green contact lenses and an almost bald pate, with the remaining hair plastered back over his head, Depp represents one of the scariest characters I’ve seen. He is a ruthless Boston thug who collaborates with the FBI to help eliminate a common enemy: the Italian mob. Working through FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), Bulger becomes immune to prosecution and goes about his daily business of killing people, extorting money, racketeering and all the other things a good gangster does to earn a living. Although Bulger is a ruthless killer, there are hints of a softer side: He loves his mother and dotes on his young son. Those humanising elements disappear, however, as the objects of Bulger’s affection are removed and he becomes obsessed with control and power.

Depp is mesmerising in the role and reminds one that when motivated he can do impressive work. By totally inhabiting the character rather than merely playing him, Depp gives depth and presence to what would otherwise have been a generic gangster story. Black Mass is a dark, disturbing film about a criminal’s rise and fall, his utter contempt for society and the rule of law, and how he manipulated law enforcement agencies for his own gains.

One does get a sense that much of Bulger’s life has been compacted into an easily digestible two hours. This disallows the kind of character development that would have made Black Mass an even richer experience. There are glimpses of complex, conflicted relationships but these are never allowed to germinate beyond the basic requirements of the story.

Director Scott Cooper’s aim is to relate the events of Whitey Bulger’s life between 1975 and 1995 – and he succeeds admirably. Bulger’s orbit involves a multitude of characters; his younger brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch), who rose to prominence in political circles;

Dakota Johnson, who’s affecting performance as the mother of Bulger’s son shows there’s more to her than what she (figuratively) displayed in Fifty Shades of Grey, and his various henchmen. Central to Black Mass’s storyline is the relationship between Bulger and Connolly. More a business arrangement than a friendship, it provides Bulger with some immunity and Connelly with a quick ladder to promotion.

The film is compelling in mood and detail and well worth seeing.

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