“Black Mass” Movie Review

    

     It’s not often you see a film where a popular lead actor delivers what is likely the finest performance of his career.  Even more unusual is to see the second billed actor match him scene for scene.  But that’s exactly what Johnny Depp and Joel Edgerton have accomplished in director Scott Cooper’s outstanding film “Black Mass”, the true story of South Boston thug Whitey Bulger and his notorious Winter Hill Gang. Cooper has worked in the genre before, most recently with his underwhelming 2013 film “Out of the Furnace”, and has created one of the most thoroughly engrossing and satisfying biopics of the year.  “Black Mass” features an all-star ensemble cast that is given plenty to chew on by first time screenwriter Mark Mallouk and “Edge of Tomorrow” scribe Jez Butterworth, who have marvelously adapted the book by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill.  Cooper employs an effective narrative structure in which some of thesecond tier characters are interrogated by the FBI and their descriptions of various events over a period of 20 years comprises the bulk of the story.

     We are already used to Johnny Depp spending copious amounts of time in the makeup chair in order to become the wide variety of colorful characters he has played in the past and “Black Mass” is certainly no exception.  Depp plays the infamous James “Whitey” Bulger.  A street level criminal who rules the south side of Boston and comes to prominence as a full fledged boss of an organized crime ring with the indirect help of a childhood friend who happens to be an FBI Agent.  Cooper immediately establishes Jimmy as a man who has built his reputation on a volatile combination of toughness and loyalty to those in the neighborhood.  Decked out in a balding slicked back hairdo, a powdery complexion, and evil looking pastel colored eyes, Depp’s Jimmy will make your skin crawl.  He’s brutally violent in the manner of which he handles business, yet he can also bring a man to his knees through simple pointed conversation.  Most memorable are two scenes, one in which he dresses down an FBI Agent for giving away a family recipe too easily and the other he invites himself into the bedroom of a married woman, pretending to be checking on her, but instead he calmly breaks her down to the point of tears as he ensures she knows who the most significant threat in her life is. 

     As Jimmy continues to wreak havoc in a low level drug distribution war with the Italian Mafia, a South Boston alum comes home for the first time since joining the FBI and is now assigned to the local field office.  Agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) has that same kind of loyalty towards the neighborhood he grew up in that Jimmy does and he’s looking to make a splash in his new assignment.  Though his boss, Charles McGuire (Kevin Bacon), is skeptical, Connolly is able to take on Jimmy as an informant after he makes contact with his childhood friend and Jimmy’s brother, State Senator Billy Bulger (Benedict Cumberbatch).  Though their initial contact indicates Jimmy isn’t interested, he later takes John’s offer and goes on to pull off one of the worst cases of manipulation you will ever see between a so called informant and a law enforcement officer.  Essentially, John and the FBI want information from Jimmy on the Italian Mafia so they can take down a North Boston crime ring.  Though Jimmy provides key information here and there, John makes a habit of ignoring the increasingly massive criminal operation Jimmy is now running.  When the film begins in 1975, the types of violent acts Jimmy is involved in seem limited to him and his goons beating people up.  By the time the early to mid 80s arrive, the crimes have now proliferated to the likes of murder, extortion, kidnapping, and high level drug sales.  And John doesn’t seem the least bit concerned.

     While Depp acts his way though some of the film’s best scenes, Edgerton holds his own and then some with a very even performance in which he steals practically every scene he’s in.  He may bow to Depp when they share the same frame because of the circumstances his character is in, but he commands each and every other scene and serves as the glue that holds the story together.  Depp’s scenes and lines may be more flashy, but Edgerton remains consistent throughout as his character slowly nosedives into depths we know he will never recover from.  With this performance, Edgerton finds himself on quite a roll after his directorial debut earlier this year with “The Gift” in which he also played the film’s memorable character “Gordo”.  With Depp a shoe in as a Best Actor nominee for his work here, I would hope the studio will also push Edgerton to a Supporting Actor nomination as well since both are equally as deserving.  Their work is simply brilliant.

     “Black Mass” is the year’s first true awards contender, having all of the necessary ingredients that voters seem to love with its true story, solid screenplay, expert direction, and awards caliber acting from top to bottom.  The film seems to have a very similar feel to recent Best Picture award winners “The Departed” and “Argo”, but it also sets itself apart by feeling wholly original in both the way the characters talk and interact, as well as the South Boston setting.  Above all, the film is a shocking character study of man who spent the majority of his adult life dealing with both tragedy and the responsibility that comes with being South Boston’s most feared man.  Depp’s portrayal smells of blood and sweat as he exudes the kind of menace rarely seen in a villain.  If this characterization is on point, than he just may have been one of the most dangerous men in America at the time, considering he operated above the law with the help of someone who confused his loyalty to the oath he swore with the loyalty he had for the neighborhood in which he grew up.  GRADE: A