Scott Crazy Heart Cooper’s portrayal of the defining part of Jimmy “Whitey” Bulger’s South Boston legacy reigns in his lead actor, dials down the drama, filters the colour, to present Black Mass as something of a drab, regimented, by-the-book account.
Brother to a politician, Billy, (Benedict Cumberbatch) and childhood friends with a high ranking FBI officer, John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), it’s fair to say that Jimmy Bulger had his connections, the latter of which helped him evade conviction throughout his ascension to the top, mainly by becoming what was termed an “informant”, but something he defined as “business” and which in reality was just a cover to drip-feed red-herrings to the law, or stitch up rival gangs.
As with most crime related biopics, his activities put a tremendous strain on his personal life, especially girlfriend Lyndsey Cyr (Dakota Johnson) who’s worried about the influence his straight-talking life lessons will have on their son, with subsequent twin tragedies going some way to explaining the pale-eyed killer’s descent to further inhumanity and eventual arrest.
Despite the intriguing subject, and obvious detailed research that has gone into the screenplay, for most people Black Mass will really only be about Johnny Depp’s performance, and whilst it is nowhere near Oscar worthy, or his best, his Bulger is effective in being a compelling watch to compliment the heavy fact-based drama. He keeps Bulger as a constant, never grandstanding in the way poster-boys for previous crime flicks have, but still hints at a psychotic force bubbling beneath the shaded glasses, especially in his threats and treatment towards the few women portrayed in his life. It’s the least “Johnny Depp” he has been in a long time, reminding us that he’s a quality actor when he isn’t mucking about in a top hat with Tim Burton.
With Depp as the focus, the rest of the cast are a revolving door around him, as Cooper structures his film based on the numerous testimonies made by Bulger’s defecting gang members. Up pops Jesse Plemons as his eager henchman, and then he vanishes, and then along comes Peter Sarsgaard as a shifty assassin, before he exits proceedings, you get the idea, and the same fate befalls Cumberbatch and Fanning, great in their respective parts, but lost in the shadow of Depp and the tangled web he weaves. The only other real mainstay is Joel Edgerton’s corrupt agent, whose misplaced loyalty is played out like every other clichéd desperate cop on the other side of the law we’ve seen in this crowded genre.
The most impressive aspect of Black Mass is Cooper’s minimal, meticulous, serious tone, which may leave some of the cast sidelined in favour of cramming in as much info as possible, but is detailed in showing how intelligent its subject was in orchestrating the many facets of his life. It might result in a serious lack of thrills or stand-out moments, but this means it errs towards something like A Most Violent Year in terms of intellectual, grown-up narratives, and that can only be a good thing.