Black Mass is an excellent crime thriller, a perfectly pitched exploration of the mafia lifestyle in South Boston, featuring great performances from its entire cast, especially a resurgence for Johnny Depp in his best performance in ages. The film features similar elements to many other crime thriller films, but it’s the unique storytelling and massive cast that separates the film from other films of the genre, and improved by Director Scott Cooper’s fantastic capturing of the character dynamics.
Set in the late 1970s in South Boston, Black Mass follows the story of notorious gangster James “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp), who’s caught in a tight corner when the rival gangs and FBI close in on his operation. The same issue faces FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), an FBI agent determined to put an end to the violent behavior of his home town. With both Bulger and Connolly facing no other option, they create an alliance to combat the Italian mob. But as their uneasy alliance continues, and Bulger’s bother Senator Billy Bulger (Benedict Cumberbatch) gets drawn into the mix, the alliance takes a turn for the worst and threatens the fabric of Boston’s crime life.
Scott Cooper expertly creates an intense and dangerous environment, but also captures the companionship and brotherhood of the mob life. Rarely has the mob world been realized in such a realistic and humanized way, and Cooper draws many lessons from Scorsese in the way he draws the story. The moral values of characters are tested and no real fingers are pointed toward the villain of the story, instead giving a well rounded view of the characters. There’s also a surprising amount of emotion to the dark story, and there’s a believable emotional undercurrent to the entire story.
The cast is definitely the highlight of the film, and the chemistry between such actors populates Cooper’s world with rich and exciting characters. Headlining the film is an incredible Johnny Depp, who abandons the goofy zaniness of his typical roles and gives a hard-edged, intense role that commands the screen with every role, providing a raw intensity to the screen while still oozing a dark charisma. Matching Depp is a brilliant Joel Edgerton, who gives his strongest role to date as a man with flexible morals but good intentions. Both actors have great chemistry, and are both deserving of Academy-Award nominations.
The supporting cast is also strong. Despite having limited screen time, Benedict Cumberbatch gives an uncharacteristically despicable and powerful role as Bulger’s younger brother the senator, and Dakota Johnson is great as Bulger’s wife, though her disappearance from the later half of the film puts holes in the story. Despite having great talents as actors, Corey Stoll, Adam Scott, Kevin Bacon, Jesse Plemons, and Peter Sarsguard are given smaller roles, but they each giver great performances and don’t overshadow the story.
Black Mass is quite possibly the best mob movie since The Departed, and expertly captures the mob lifestyle and the Boston setting. As a kick start for award season and a resurgence for Johnny Depp, the film doesn’t disappoint, and paves the way for a great crime thriller. Grade: -A