Black Mass (2015): Johnny Depp acts bollocks off in surprisingly excellent mob saga

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(Cue Scarface intro music) In June 2011, James ‘Whitey’ Bulger had finally been caught by the FBI after 16 years at large, and 12 on their most wanted list. Even now, after his murder in prison in 2018, he remains one of the most violent and dangerous organised crime figures to ever come out of the United States. As the leader of The Winter Hill Gang over several decades, he was the indisputably terrifying face of the Irish Mob in America. Aside from some subtly hinted character influence in other films, his story has never been directly told. Until now.

First and foremost, I’ll make no secret of the fact that I’ve never been particularly impressed by Johnny Depp. With the exception of Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas, I’ve never felt compelled or even entirely convinced by any of his performances, and his other iconic gangster role of Donnie Brasco was mind-numbingly dreadful (how that film isn’t categorised as a Mafia comedy is beyond me). It was for this reason that I approached Black Mass with some apprehension, fearful that it would be another overambitious dud with everyone’s favourite pretty boy, and a write-off of a potentially awesome picture. So my being proved completely and utterly wrong was nothing short of a divine gift, as Depp’s performance as Bulger not only turned out to be exceptionally executed in and of itself, it is unequivocally the greatest performance of his entire career.

Whitey Bulger has gone down in the annals of American gangster folklore as being one of the most ruthless bastards ever. A vicious armed robber and street gang boss by the time he was only 14 years of age, he was already reputed for his emotional coldness and capability as a fighter. After a rather bad stint in the U.S. air force and many a stretch in both military and civilian prisons, weaved around an ever-burgeoning career in loan sharking, protection rackets, theft and contract killing, Bulger eventually came to secure the top seat of The Winter Hill Gang, named for the Winter Hill neighbourhood of Somerville, Massachusetts, from which they operated. Opening in 1975, when Bulger would have been 46, Depp seamlessly establishes the tone of the biopic with his portrayal of a quietly unpredictable, semi-psychotic demon. If his greying slick-back, ravaged face and utterly creepy blue peepers aren’t sufficient to make you hide your face behind your cushion, then his maniacal laughter and penchant for arbitrary, mind-blowing violence are sure to do the trick.

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In spite of his hatred for authority and fierce dedication to the criminal code, ever-tightening police dragnets, family setbacks and brutal competition from Italian crime families all compel Whitey to safeguard his territory via becoming an informant. His childhood friend, John Connolly (the veritable Joel Edgerton) has become a high-ranking FBI agent in his time away from Boston, and he quickly pegs an opportunity in his connection to the old neighbourhood (in conjunction with Whitey’s ego and paranoia), setting about destabilising the more problematic criminal elements of the city by way of Whitey’s information whilst allowing Whitey to operate with some level of impunity, and you can probably tell how well that’s going to turn out. Edgerton plays Connolly with something of a brilliant naivete, convinced that he is ultimately doing the right thing by having this absolute psychopath act as his tattle-tale, and also completely underestimating the self-serving and incredibly intimidating psychopathicy-ness of said psychopath. He’s sadly not the box’s sharpest tool, old John.

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While Connolly is cheerfully accepting bribes and bringing the correct indictment figures to his higher-ups, Whitey continues murdering rival mobsters and potential informants (a particularly harrowing scene involving his underboss’ stepdaughter illustrates just how callous he truly is) and endeavouring about his usual business with such brazenness that he eventually hatches a plot to smuggle weapons to the I.R.A. Having become too violent and egomaniacal, Whitey’s closest colleagues (particularly his driver Kevin Weeks, who corroborated a lot of the subject matter portrayed in the film) freak out and begin to turn on him and one another, and the whole thing degenerates into a shitshow. I won’t get too spoiler-ish, but as this is a film about a real criminal organisation, you’ll already know it won’t have that pretty of an ending. The only gangsters with happy lives are the ones who haven’t been caught yet.

As much of a horror villain vibe that he undoubtedly has, Depp still manages to infuse Whitey with a semblance of humanity that almost, almost makes you feel a little sympathetic towards the guy. Having grown up in extreme poverty with only the street to take care of him, he would go on to endure more punishment when he and his wife Lindsey lost their young son Douglas to Reye syndrome, a particularly rare and nasty ailment from which there was no hope of saving him. This, in conjunction with the disintegration of his marriage and his mother’s death, killed any remnants of a heart that he had left. This is absolutely not an apologia for any of his behaviour, just an acknowledgement that appalling events in life can cause some people to become irrevocably dark, and the film portrays those nuances honestly and maturely, but it is careful not to beatify or glamourise Bulger in any way. In the final analysis, he’s an awful guy, but he’s not a reasonlessly malevolent creature.

Another incredible aspect that seems pulled from some kind of paperback noir is the fact that his younger brother, Billy Bulger, would not only go in the entirely opposite direction to Whitey by excelling in school and staying on the right side of the law, he would eventually become a prominent Democratic senator and the President of the Massachusetts Senate. There has always been enormous controversy surrounding the younger Bulger’s knowledge of his brother’s activities (and his whereabouts whilst on the run) and the film is smart to not tread any potentially slanderous ground, with Benedict Cumberbatch playing Billy as the apple-pie politician who obviously loves the black sheep of his family, but axiomatically can’t be seen anywhere near him.

Film Review Black Mass

So, if you haven’t seen it (I have bizarrely encountered several self-proclaimed Depp fans who were not even aware of it. For shame), it is a resplendently dark, brutal and punchy crime drama, but not without some welcome and wonderful moments of gallows humour (a dinner table scene that evokes the ‘Funny How?’ sequence in Goodfellas is particularly terrifying). Splendidly acted by all involved, especially Depp, it won’t make you feel very good, but then again when I have been in the business of propagating films that do that?

 

 

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