Black Mass

Black Mass provides Johnny Depp his meatiest roles in years, even if the film can't help feel familiar.

Black Mass provides Johnny Depp with the kind of meaty film role you wish he’d do more of. A cautionary, insider look at the underworld of South Boston, it has to its advantage a stellar all-star cast, all of whom give uniformly admirable performances, led by Depp but also co-star Joel Edgerton, but it can’t quite shake off the feeling of being strung together from other better films of the organized crime genre.

Depp plays Irish American mobster James ‘Whitey’ Bulger in a transformative turn that leaves him with a deeper voice, sharp piercing eyes, gelled slick-back hair and the steely veneer of a certain famed Transylvanian count. In a word, he’s frightening. Not just in a few scenes but nearly all the time, even when he isn’t pulling the trigger on someone for offending him. It’s a showy performance for sure, but thankfully Depp never goes over the top, as he’s done in numerous previous roles. Bulger has a problem on his hands; his growing criminal empire attracts the wrath of the Italian rivals and in order to protect himself and his family, he turns informant for childhood friend and now rising FBI agent John Connolly (Edgerton). This is where the film, based on facts, is most fascinating – in showing how Jimmy and John were both delusional, the former in thinking he wasn’t being a ‘rat’ and working to form a ‘business alliance’ with the FBI and the latter for thinking he’d get away without being tainted by his mobster association.

The film however seems too self-absorbed with the time (starting in the mid 70’s) and place that it’s set in and rarely ever probes more than for surface level exploration of familiar tropes of such a setup – street executions in parked cars, henchmen with anger management issues, crazed psychopaths who are doting fathers and husbands. The film spends far too much time in the minutiae of the criminal brotherhood (with everyone dropping f-bombs along the way) when it should instead look at the dynamics of how Connolly and Bulger work each other to their advantages. This makes the film feel not only mechanical but unfortunately also gives rise to comparisons with the likes of Scorsese’s masterful Goodfellas and even his own Boston set crime film, The Departed.

Director Scott Cooper, who also made the excellent yet under seen rural thriller Out of the Furnace, is faced with the daunting task of living up to these comparisons. Without exploring fully the moral ambiguity of Connolly, by far the more interesting character, it reduces itself to becoming an imitation Scorsese film and unlike American Hustle, which also attempted the same but in a form that seemed more homage, Cooper’s style screams imitation. The films structure and execution however guarantee a stimulating watch for lovers of biographical crime drama and as long as you don’t mind the familiar nature of it all, the great performances should make for an engaging watch.

Rating: ★★★½☆

About Faizan Rashid

A veteran Dubai based film critic, Faizan has been reviewing movies for nearly a decade. His work has been published in local newspapers such as 7days and on prestigious online websites such as MSN Arabia and