Johnny Depp seems determined to secure an Oscar nomination for his performance as notorious real life Boston criminal kingpin Whitey Bulger. I think perhaps he will, despite stiff competition, but I doubt Black Mass will actually win any awards. The film is good, but falls short of greatness for a number of reasons, not all of them dodgy wig related.
The plot follows Bulger’s rise to power throughout the late 1970s and early 80s. Brother to state senator Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch), Bulger became an FBI informant to get rid of a Mafia family invading his territory, in return for being left to his own devices. Bulger’s corrupt handler John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) also grew up with him and his brother, which leads others in the FBI – notably Charles McGuire (Kevin Bacon) and Brian Halloran (Peter Sarsgaard) – to take a dim view of their dubious arrangement.
“Solid” is the adjective I would generally use to describe both the direction from Scott Cooper and performances. Speaking of which, honourable mentions for Jesse Plemons, as well as the wasted Dakota Johnson and Juno Temple in a memorable bit-part. Good location work and sense of period also work in the film’s favour, and it is never less than gripping.
However, Black Mass overreaches in its unwise evocation of sequences from much better gangster pictures, most notably a moment which brings to mind the “Funny how?” scene from Goodfellas. This is always a very dangerous game to play, because it risks reminding the audience of the earlier, better film, and kindling within them a wish that they were watching it instead. Additionally the film concludes with a whimper rather than a bang, replete with the usual lazy here’s-what-happened-to-everyone-afterwards postscripts. I would have liked a bit more dramatic fire, as well as a bit more of an indication of what made Bulger tick. I should add that the violence is very gruesome in certain scenes, and the usual warning about swearing also applies. That said, I imagine the audience knows what to expect from this kind of film, and for that reason nothing felt gratuitous.
In the end, Black Mass works reasonably well, and if you are a fan of the genre it is worth checking out. But it is not the masterpiece some critics are proclaiming. There are a few dodgy wigs too.