CHRONICLING the rise and fall of notorious South Brooklyn crime boss James ‘Whitey’ Bulger, Black Mass (Cert 15A, 123 mins) rings together a stellar cast to tell a story of crooked cops, hardened criminals, and insidious political corruption.
As the head of an Irish mob crew known as the Winter Hill Gang, Bulger rose to infamy through the ’70s and ’80s, piling up a wealth of charges including extortion, narcotics distribution, racketeering, and murder.
He also claims to have shipped more than one million dollars’ worth of weapons across the Atlantic to support the IRA.
Furthermore, he racked up the litany of charges while under the watch of the FBI, with whom he was co-operating against a common enemy – the Italian mafia families who controlled much of the black market in Brooklyn.
Yet, despite being one of the America’s most wanted fugitives (trumped only by Osama Bin Laden), ‘Whitey’ Bulger has a fairly low profile outside of the United States.
Most of us will have been unwittingly introduced to Bulger through Scorcese’s The Departed – which drew heavily on Whitey’s story for Jack Nicholson’s character.
It seems fitting then that when Johnny Depp steps into the lead role as Bulger in Black Mass, he brings a distinctly Nicholson-like energy with him.
It is safe to say that much of the buzz built up around Black Mass is connected to Depp’s transformative performance.
With thinning white hair combed tight against a balding dome and haunting dead-blue eyes, the actor is almost unrecognisable.
It is apt casting, too, given Depp’s recent propensity for family-friendly and much more superficial characters.
The pairing of the chillingly off-kilter looks with the grisly and sociopathic character results in a monster that will stay in the viewer’s mind long after the image fades from the screen.
Depp’s metamorphosis oozes the kind of ghoulishness that we don’t see enough of in cinema.
Part of bringing such a strong lead character to life involves surrounding him with a much less grotesque cast.
Joel Edgerton (Zero Dark Thirty) plays John Connolly, a childhood friend of Bulger who joins the FBI.
While operating under the guise of justice, Connolly is often more concerned with his own career, and agrees to turn a blind eye to Bulger’s criminal ventures in return for assistance making a case against the Mafia.
Benedict Cumberbatch also stars as Billy Bulger, the more respectable sibling, who served for 18 years as president of the Massachusetts Senate while his older brother continued to serve up corpse after corpse.
No doubt that Black Mass belongs to Depp and Edgerton, but there are great smaller parts studded throughout, including appearances from Kevin Bacon, Adam Scott, and Dakota Johnson – the latter of whom provides the most memorable scene in the film.
The story told in Black Mass is one massive tangled web of deception and exploitation, and director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart) is happy to revel in it.
Cooper delivers a wonderfully menacing and claustrophobic feel through shots so close we can see the pores, stained teeth and bloodstains in grim detail. Cooper’s vision is so bleak though that, in a way, it dulls the film.
We move across a decade of Bulger’s life in a disparate fashion. There is no sense of crescendo, no righteous corruption-busting cop to provide the narrative drive, there is actually nobody to root for, and so there is no Hollywood ending.
More of a sociopathic character study than a traditional mob drama, the narrative sloppily unfolds like an onion rotted to the core.
With more hits than misses, Black Mass remains an engaging, beautifully-shot, and superbly acted film.