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Sugar House Journal

Dan's Review: Depp makes "Black Mass" worth seeing

Sep 21, 2015 17h27 ● By Dan Metcalf

Joel Edgerton and Johnny Depp in Black Mass - © 2014 Warner Bros.

Black Mass (Warner Bros.)

Rated R for brutal violence, language throughout, some sexual references and brief drug use.

Starring Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dakota Johnson, Kevin Bacon, Jesse Plemons, Corey Stoll, Peter Sarsgaard, David Harbour, Rory Cochrane, Julianne Nicholson, James Russo, Adam Scott, Jeremy Strong, Brad Carter, W. Earl Brown, Juno Temple, Erica McDermott, Berglind Jónsdóttir, Bill Camp, Scott Anderson, Patrick M. Walsh, David De Black, Jamie Donnelly.

Written by Jez Butterworth and Mark Mallouk.

Directed by Scott Cooper.



For actors, bad guys are always fun to play. Maybe it’s cathartic or maybe it allows artists to embrace their dark side, but being a cold-hearted killer is a feather in the cap for most actors. Johnny Depp gets to be as bad as he wants to be in Black Mass, the biopic tale of the very real James “Whitey” Bulger, a Boston crime boss who ruled the streets in the 1970s, 80s and 90s.

The story of Whitey Bulger goes much deeper than a 2-hour movie could give due diligence. The movie begins some time after Bulger’s release from the federal prison system as he rises to the top of the notorious Winter Hill Gang in Boston’s south side. At the same time, an old schoolmate named John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), comes calling, asking Whitey to become an informant against his rival gang, the Angiulos.  The Connolly/Whitey alliance nets results, bringing down the Angiulos and making a hero out of the FBI. In the meantime, Whitey and his associates are left alone by the feds and free to carry out their crimes. Whitey’s trusted circle includes Steve Flemmi (Rory Cochrane), Kevin Weeks (Jesse Plemons) and favorite hitman Johnny Matarano (W. Earl Brown). Interestingly, Whitey’s brother is none other than William Bulger (Benedict Cumberbatch) president of the Massachusetts State Senate.

As Whitey’s crimes mount, honest folks inside and outside the FBI begin to take notice, and Connolly’s arrangement with the crime lord begins to fall apart.

Black Mass is a movie that lives up to its dark title, especially in terms of the number brutal and graphic murders that happen onscreen. While writers Jez Butterworth and Mark Mallouk embellished on the facts surrounding Bulger’s reign of terror, the basic essence of Black Mass is intense, if not a little depressing. I suppose the biggest source of tension is wondering who’s going to get shot in the head at any given time, without warning.

Black Mass’ biggest asset is the performance of Depp, who (with the help of some creepy contact lenses) gives you chills as he becomes a crazed and vicious killer without remorse. It’s one of the better portrayals of Depp’s career, at least since his initial run at Jack Sparrow in the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie.

If there’s a downfall to Black Mass and the story of Bulger (who went on the run for 16 years until his arrest in 2011), it’s the casual means by which his empire crumbles, leaving audiences feeling a little more than anticlimactic. If you want a better picture of Whitey Bulger and his unholy alliance with the FBI, I’d recommend renting the documentary Whitey: The United States of America v. James J. Bulger (2014).

Black Mass Trailer