On the streets of Boston’s South Side in 1975, everyone knew the name Whitey Bulger. He and his Winter Hill Gang ran their neighborhood and he constantly tried to keep the mafia from North Boston out of his territory. On top of keeping his territory safe, he also kept ties with his brother, a Massachusetts senator, and became an informant for the FBI. Black Mass tells this story from both Whitey’s point of view and from the point of view of Boston-raised FBI agent John Connoly, played by Joel Edgerton.
Black Mass marks a departure for Johnny Depp from his recent career choices. Instead of donning a lot of makeup and prosthetics to play an eccentric and goofy character, his portrayal of James “Whitey” Bulger has him donning a lot of makeup and prosthetics to play an eccentric and scary character. It’s a layered, nuanced and terrifying character at times, and Depp’s best performance since Edward Scissorhands. In one scene, James is stone-faced and practically silent, and the next scene is laughing and joking with the rest of his gang. At the snap of a finger, Johnny Depp goes from an enormous range of emotion in a private setting to a stone-faced killer in public.
While Depp is the highlight of the film, most of the supporting cast also brings their A-game to the screen. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Senator William Bulger, a man desperately trying to keep company with his gangster brother while publicly severing ties with the gang. While his voice sounds odd with a Boston accent instead of his normal British accent, it does not detract from his performance. Kevin Bacon and Adam Scott play supporting FBI agents. Even though Scott and Bacon are underutilized in their few scenes – with Scott being mute for the first two-fifths of the movie – when they do speak, they give some great lines.
The best performance outside of Depp, however, is Joel Edgerton. His character, John Connoly, is an FBI agent who grew up in the same neighborhood as Bulger, so he holds a close connection with Whitey and wants to keep him safe. Edgerton essentially plays two characters: one when he’s conversing with his superiors at the FBI office and basking in the glory of busting some of the largest Boston crime families, and the other is when he’s conversing with Whitey. The “conversing with Whitey” character begins tense but gets looser and more accepting of the illegal activities that Whitey participates in, sometimes even joining in himself.
While most performances were impressive, there’s one group of characters that don’t work at all with the film: the women. Now, I’m not saying girls can’t act as well as boys or anything along those lines, but this movie slides the female characters into the background. In fact, Golden Globe Award-winning actress Sienna Miller was hired to play a supporting role as Catherine Greig, Whitey’s long-time girlfriend, and was cut entirely from the final release of the film. In addition, the female characters who do get screen time aren’t played by the best actresses. Dakota Johnson of Fifty Shades of Grey fame (or infamy, take your pick) plays Lindsey Cyr-Bulger, who is Whitey’s wife and the mother of his son. Her character is a standard “suburban wife of a man doing illegal things” character, and the performance reflects how standard the character is. In many scenes, it looks like Johnson is giggling at the fact that she’s acting alongside Johnny Depp when he doesn’t look like Johnny Depp. It’s distracting and not a believable performance. Julianne Nicholson plays Mrs. Connoly, and while her performance is better than Johnson’s by a long shot, it is still very sub-par compared to Depp and Edgerton’s work. One scene in particular that she shares with Depp, however, shows a transition from subtle to blatant fear that was very impressive to watch, and made me think that Nicholson could be a great actress if she was given a better character to work with.
As a whole, Black Mass is a very strong gangster movie. The supporting male cast gives a strong performance, and the supporting female cast doesn’t – whether the fault is in the writing of the characters or the performance itself. Aside from its flaws, it’s an intense, entertaining and well-directed film that’s definitely worth seeing. Come this year’s Oscar season, it’s going to be one to keep an eye on. Black Mass is now playing in theatres and is rated R for brutal violence, language throughout, some sexual references, and drug use.