Depp’s Bulger Is Electrifying In “Black Mass”

By Scott Kurland
Film: Black Mass
Starring: Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Jesse Plemons, Rory Cochrane, Kevin Bacon, and Dakota Johnson
Rated R
Director: Scott Cooper

Boston is famous for many things. We had the Boston Tea Party, The Patriots, and the Red Sox. Sadly, we’ve also become known for being victims of the Boston marathon bombing. However, before all of that, Boston was known for a spike in crime in the 1970s and 80s. That crime spike was partially because of the Winter Hill Gang under the leadership of James “Whitey” Bulger. Within the last decade many filmmakers including Barry Levison and Ben Affleck tried to make a film about Bulger. This week’s film is the long awaited Bulger tale “Black Mass”, and stars Johnny Depp as Bulger. Let’s find out if it is any good shall we?

“Black Mass” takes place in the mid 1970s and follows the rise and fall of James “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp). Bulger’s story is told from the testimonies of Winter Hill Gang members Kevin Weeks (Jesse Plemons), Steve Flemmi (Rory Cochrane), and John Martorano (W. Earl Brown). These three informants go into great detail about Bulger being approached by FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) via his brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch).  Connolly offers Bulger protection in exchange Bulger must inform to him about the Italian crime syndicate in the North End. Bulger plays Connolly and what unfolds is a scandal that turned Boston on its head.

“Black Mass” is a very good film, I’ll start of by saying that. Yet, I want to list my grievances about this film first; that way I can focus on what is good about this movie. My biggest problem with “Black Mass” is the use of ‘Boston face’. What is ‘Boston face’ you ask? ‘Boston face’ is that stereo typical voice that actors, (mostly British actors) use to play Bostonians. You know the voice I’m referring to. It's that damn Cliff Clavin “Pawk Ya Caah”voice. Listen, not every one does that voice just Juno Temple, Kevin Bacon, and at times Joel Edgerton. Be honest, would you really want to see a movie about Bulger if you heard a very nasal Cliff Clavin “Little Known fact about Whitey Bulger, he shot people in the back of the friggin head.” No you wouldn't, and it's not nearly that bad. That stereotype is just misleading. 

Yet, I can look past that, I can even forgive Benedict Cumberbatch for sounding like character actor Eddie Bracken. I understand that these are British actors and Kevin Bacon; they don’t know proper Boston speech. After awhile I found the accents a little charming, as you know imitation is the highest form of flattery. As for flaws not counting the cliched use of Thelma Houston’s “Don’t Leave Me This Way” in the disco scene; “Black Mass” is pretty flawless.

Depp is receiving a lot of deserved Oscar buzz. For awhile Depp was on a pretty rough streak making flop after flop. He’s back in fine form as Bulger, and his depiction is absolutely terrifying, it's such a good performance. The real terror that Depp and director Scott Cooper bring to the film is the fact Bulger so likable. Depp’s empathy shines through as Bulger. Just when you want fear Bulger; Depp finds a way to show his humanity. This Oscar season Depp is going to be the actor to beat for best actor. Depp is stellar as Bulger, that most of the actors fail in comparison. Plemons, Edgerton, and Cochrane come close. Cochrane’s subtlety and silent intensity is a scene stealer, but this is truly Depp’s film.

“Black Mass” is filled with gorgeous cinematography from Masanobu Takayanagi is beautiful to look at. The film pops off screen making Boston look hauntingly glamorous. Takayanagi talent started to blossom in “Silver Linings Playbook”and the way he shot in a realistic cinema verite style. “Black Mass” is Takayanagi’s best looking film, but without a great director that work can’t be seen. Scott Cooper is on a hot streak right now. Having made “Crazy Heart”, “Out of The Furnace”, and now “Black Mass” back to back he’s become a real heavy hitter. Cooper’s films remind me of an early Francis Ford Coppola; and what he did with films like “The Conversation” and “the Godfather”. Cooper took a very difficult subject matter and a script that was considered unshootable and  made a nice crime period piece.

“Black Mass” is a dark and dramatic look at Boston during a time where crime was at its highest. Depp gives an Oscar worthy performance to compliment Cooper’s direction and Takayanagi’s brilliant eye. This a film that will get us out of our summer slump and into award season. I recommend “Black Mass”; especially for Depp’s chilling portrayal of Bulger. 

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