Detailing the exploits from the mid-seventies onwards of infamous Boston mobster James ‘Whitey’ Bulger (Johnny Depp), directed by Scott Cooper (‘Crazy Heart’ 09, ‘Out of the Furnace‘) and written by Jez Butterworth (‘Edge of Tomorrow‘, ‘Spectre‘) and Mark Mallouk in his screenwriting debut, ‘Black Mass’ feels from start to finish like a poor man’s ‘The Departed’ (06), as we simply watch brutal killing after brutal killing take place at either the bequest or the hands of the protagonist, with the ludicrously overt antics of a complicit FBI agent as the only real countermeasure to the bloodshed, bar a few moments with Bulger’s young son and wife (Dakota Johnson) where the film finds some rare flashes of humanity.
It’s a vile film, gritty to be sure, but with nothing more than Bulger killing everyone that slights him as the heart of the piece it becomes difficult to the see any point to the movie other than a warning not to get involved with psychopaths. Joel Edgerton plays FBI agent John Connolly, who manages to persuade his boss (Kevin Bacon) and colleagues (David Harbour and Adam Scott) that bringing in Bulger as an informant is a totally sweet idea and that his childhood friendship with the man in question isn’t in any way a conflict of interests. If it wasn’t true, you would never believe it, but the way Connolly comes across onscreen wouldn’t sell to the least discerning of officials, never mind the Bureau.
Johnny Depp gives a, much touted, thoroughly transformative performance as Bulger, but this is exactly what Depp has being doing his entire career really – even recently in films that underperformed like ‘The Lone Ranger‘ and ‘Mortdecai‘, where the media largely ignored his work and preferred to lay claim to his career being over instead, and even though it’s a noteworthy turn the especially dark writing and material are unlikely to do him many favours come awards season. Indeed, there’s no immediate reason for the movie’s title other than its story representing a relentless physical amalgam of disturbing and pathological violence.