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Black Mass Review: A Riveting Return to Form for Johnny Depp

By Julian Roman — September 17th, 2015

Black Mass marks a villainous return to form for Johnny Depp. Adapted from the book by Boston Globe journalists Dick Lehr and Gerard O'Neill, Black Mass is the incredible true story of gangster James 'Whitey' Bulger. Bulger went from being a relatively small time neighborhood criminal in South Boston (Southie), to the feared kingpin of the Boston underworld in the late seventies and eighties. His rise to power was abetted by FBI Agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton). The pair grew up together in the tight-knit Irish community. Then engaged in a criminal alliance to wipe out Bulger's competition, while giving the FBI publicity wins for taking down the Italian Mafia.

Black Mass opens with Kevin Weeks (Jesse Plemons), under arrest, giving sworn testimony to the government. He recounts his initiation into Bulger's (Depp) gang in 1973. This format of Bulger's incarcerated cronies spilling the beans for immunity or reduced sentences is how the story unfolds. Director Scott Cooper (Out of the Furnace) employs a slow burn strategy to dive into the characters and their skillful manipulation by Bulger. While Depp and Edgerton are at the forefront of the story, we do get quite a bit of character exposition for the supporting cast.

Most audiences will have some familiarity with Bulger's story. His twenty years on the FBI's most wanted list gave him a near mythic persona. Scott Cooper's approach to Black Mass is completely different from Martin Scorsese's The Departed. That film, which I greatly dislike, was a lot of pop and sizzle. Jack Nicholson's caricature performance of the Bulger character, along with Scorsese's trademark flair, made that film essentially a gangster music video. Scott Cooper's Black Mass is much more thoughtful. It is realistically violent. Not over the top or sensationalist in its portrayal of murder. The story builds in a more conventional way. It gives the audience time to understand these people and the neighborhood they came from.

Black Mass could be a textbook for brilliant ensemble acting. Johnny Depp is ruthless, calculating, and magnetic to his acolytes. His pockmarked face, slick backed white hair, dead front tooth, and piercing blue eyes are almost vampiric. But as threatening as he is, the film shows the human side of the monster. Bulger adored his family, especially his mother, son, and brother (Benedict Cumberbatch). Depp's steel countenance softens around the people he loves. Those characters, in turn, embrace this warmth with steadfast loyalty. Joel Edgerton and Benedict Cumberbatch are stellar in their supporting roles. I don't know how many winners will come from Black Mass, but the actors will be nominated come award season.

There are several scenes in Black Mass that are absolutely riveting. One in particular, where Depp's Bulger has an insidious confrontation with Connolly's wife (Julianne Nicholson), is masterful. The double entendres, physical reaction, and lighting in this scene had the audience spellbound. You could have heard a pin drop in the theater. Scott Cooper's previous work has been substantive. But he's clearly grown as a filmmaker with vision to orchestrate such a fantastic scene.

Black Mass is a great film on all fronts. Fans of the gangster and crime drama genres will be especially impressed. Johnny Depp, a talented performer who's been sidetracked by more commercial ventures, towers over Black Mass. Audiences will be stunned by how good he is. Harkening back to his youth, before box office stardom, when he did edgier work that still captivates today. Black Mass is a must see.

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