Taking a deep dive into Boston’s murky 1980s underworld, 'Black Mass' charts the rise of one of America’s most infamous career criminals - Jimmy ‘Whitey’ Bulger (Johnny Depp). With excellent left-field casting, gripping pace and a clever script, director Scott Cooper has made a film that’s far more engaging than your typical mobster movie.
We meet ‘Whitey’ Bulger as a relatively small-time crook. Although a feared and respected figure on the streets of ‘Southie’ (having completed a stint in Alcatraz) his territory remains under constant threat from the mafia, who rule the north of the city. It’s a problem shared by FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), a childhood friend of Whitey’s who has ambitious plans to eradicate the mafia – and nicely further his own career in the process.
After approaching Whitey’s brother, the comparatively squeaky-clean senator Billy Bulger (Benedict Cumberbatch), John manages to persuade the gangster to form an alliance with the FBI - leads, tips and busts on the Italians in exchange for a carte blanche for Whitey to expand his operations, without the interference of the FBI. The one stipulation? No murders. As you might imagine, things do not go quite to plan.
What follows is a fascinating study of corruption and ambition, in which no-one emerges with their hands fully clean. Criminals, politicians, businessmen and the police all rub shoulders in a world where the ends justify the means – and deception, bribes, backhanders, cover-ups and blackmail are all routine practice.
In some ways, 'Black Mass' appears more reminiscent of 2013’s 'American Hustle' than conventional gangster films - John Connolly’s arc, of the well-meaning lawman seduced by the promise of glory, in particular - has more than a touch of Bradley Cooper’s Richie DiMaso about it. However, despite the similar thematic territory, the tone is much darker, with Johnny Depp putting in a truly magnetic, chilling performance as the brutal, ultra-violent Whitey.
Depp’s air of menace is a revelation (especially after a few years of increasingly tiresome ‘oddball’ roles) and he’s backed up by an exceptionally talented (and starry) supporting cast. With wry flashes of black humour, moments of hold-your-breath tension and an engrossing true-story narrative, 'Black Mass' proves there’s life in the ‘gangster flick’ genre yet.
'Black Mass' screened at the 59th BFI London Film Festival, and will be on wider release in the UK this November.