When you are heading in to see Black Mass, it must be kept in mind, what you are about to witness is a group of actors not only playing out a drama, but also practicing their craft to perfection. In Scott Cooper’s exploration into the life and criminal career of Boston mob boss Whitey Bulger, he constructs a stage on which the players of this film don’t just portray their characters, they become them in what is a masterpiece of character study. Throughout Black Mass, despite shortcomings in writing and pacing, the acting is what shines through in a truly memorable experience.
The true powerhouse performances come from Johnny Depp as Bulger, Joel Edgerton as his South Boston childhood friend made adult accomplice John Connolly, and his brother Billy, played in a masterful turn by Benedict Cumberbatch. Throughout Bulger’s story, a criminal expansion across three decades that finds him continually descending into a darker and more intense version of himself, these three absolutely shine. This cadre interacts in such a way that the nature of the people they represent as well as how they coexist in their insulated criminal community comes to life on the screen. Very quickly into the movie, the viewer is drawn into these characters.
Johnny Depp must be given the most praise, however, this is truly a pinnacle moment for him despite his stellar career. Not since Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas or Blow have we seen him so fully inhabit a person as he does Whitey Bulger. A dark but extremely intriguing figure whose intensity is fully embodied by Depp in every scene. While Depp has been guilty in the past of expanding his characters in a bombastic nature, here he condenses his performance to a fine, gritty, dark point. Depp has had a turn as a mobster in Public Enemies, but this role extends beyond the characteristics of a simpler mob drama into such a masterful interpretation that he draws the viewer into this desire to figure out Bulger’s impenetrable psyche.
However, Depp doesn’t excel alone, Joel Edgerton serves as a crucial lynchpin to the film. His descent from respectable FBI recruit to Bulger’s stooge is captured perfectly, all things being equal, this should propel Edgerton to a household name. One would expect a struggle between his duties as a law enforcer and his history with Bulger, but what really shines in Edgerton’s performance is the way he acts out the unwavering loyalty John Connolly felt towards Bulger. Connolly becomes enraptured in the cult of personality surrounding Bulger, an act the viewer quickly becomes complicit in.
While the acting is truly where the bulk of the enjoyment of this movie is derived from, I would be remiss if I did not mention the incredible cinematography. Masanobu Takayanagi gives us his best, the grittiness he infused into Warrior combines with the gloominess of his work in The Grey to create a truly memorable viewing experience. Presenting contrasting visions of a dreary South Boston and a vivacious South Beach, Takayanagi allows the vibrancy of the characters to be accentuated by their environment. He infuses the scenes in South Boston with the visceral feel of a grimy boot being dragged across your face, a palpable feeling that is forced upon the viewer.
While this movie is packed full of absurdly high-quality acting, it does have its flaws. Cooper’s pacing is a little off, and while it must be incredibly difficult to capture the thirty year creation of a criminal enterprise in two hours, the audience is left a little confused by the end of it all. Great periods of time pass with little information given, some passages of time are noted by year and some are just implied. This waters down the narrative and confuses the plot of an otherwise fantastic film. The quality of the acting made this much more bearable for me, but it might be a detail that will ruffle your feathers.
The only other complaint I can muster is that I am left wanting more. I want more of the remarkable interaction between Depp and Cumberbatch, I want a deeper understanding of Whitey Bulger, but most of all I want further collaboration between all the luminaries in this film. Really, every actor was at their best in what is a crash course in how to embody a character. From Kevin Bacon as FBI Special Agent Charles McGuire to Julianne Nicholson as Connolly’s wife Marianne, the performances are extraordinary. Even Adam Scott, someone usually pigeonholed to comedic roles, gives a stirring portrayal of agent Robert Fitzpatrick. Each actor participates in this magic, and while the top three billed clearly do the heavy lifting, the ensemble cast makes the movie a well-rounded acting clinic. You should make time to see this movie, its powerhouse performances are something you should not deprive yourself.
[easyreview title= "Review of Black Mass" cat1title="Bart's Rating" cat1detail="Overall Review" cat1rating="4.5" overall= false]