Film: “Black Mass”; Cast: Johnny Depp, Benedict Cumberbatch, Joel Edgerton, Jesse Plemons, Sienna Miller, Dakota Johnson, Rory Cochrane, Kevin Bacon, Director: Scott Cooper; Rating: **1/2
What I like about Johnny Depp is that, with every act of his, he transcends as an actor. He surprises you by eerily getting into the skin of the character with his demeanour and various unconventional get-ups and makes you believe that he is the character he plays. And that too convincingly.
In “Black Mass” with his balding pate and glassy blue eyes, Depp depicts the role of the Irish American mobster and leader of the Winter Hill Gang, James “Whitey” Bulger, who ruled the roost of the organised crime in Boston.
His performance as Bulger, the chilling, psychopathic monster lording over the Boston underworld through intimidation and violence, is his best and most understated in years.
But the film itself is a formulaic gangster biopic that chronicles how “Whitey”, brother of the elected president of the Massachusetts State Senate in 1978, Billy Bulger (Benedict Cumberbatch) was able to dominate the crime scenes in the city, unchallenged by fellow criminals and was able to stay out of prison right till 1994 because of the FBI Agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) who used him as an informant to help curb the Italian mafia out of North Boston.
The relationship between the Bulger brothers and Connolly is fascinating, but doesn’t have much passion or emotional pull. Joel Edgerton’s character, a mass of moral and ethical contradictions, is complex and intriguing and he has his moments of on-screen glory.
Similarly the others who have some memorable moments are: Rory Cochrane, W. Earl Brown, Jesse Plemons and Scott Anderson as Whitey’s inner-circle boys, Peter Sarsgaard as a drug-dealer businessman who has the misfortune of ending up on Whitey’s bad side, David Harbour, Adam Scott and Kevic Bacon as the Federal Agents and Corey Stoll as the federal prosecutor determined to nail Whitey.
On the other hand, Benedict Cumberbatch with his limited screen presence seems wasted.
The screenplay by writers Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth, narrates Whitey’s story in a non-linear fashion, from 1975 in the form of testimonies from Whitey’s associates, after the gang has been disintegrated.
What makes the narration appealing is that it directly plunges to the present day without getting into Whitey’s back story or the reason of his incitement into the underworld.
While the script tries to give us a panoramic view of the South Boston criminal underworld, it struggles to find something new to say about organised crime and the loyalty between these men.
With gritty cinematography by Masanobu Takayanagi, the era is well captured as the film is elegantly shot in palette of blues and blacks.
Stefania Cella’s production design and Kasia Walicka-Maimone’s costumes definitely are worth a mention.
Overall, Scott Cooper’s direction results in a well-made and absorbing film, inundated with appropriate menace, but lacks the emotional core and sociological angle. Black Mass thus seems like more of a documented procedural routine.