“[A]n observant film of human sensibilities”
Scott Cooper’s Black Mass features arguably the best ensemble cast of the year, with Johnny Depp at the helm in perhaps his best, most convincing performance of the last decade. Following a string of financial failures and lackluster projects, particularly this year’s Mortdecai, where I proclaimed in my review that if this didn’t kill Depp’s assortment of eclectic projects, nothing would, Depp, like always, changes costumes and throws himself into yet another role. His performance as the notorious James “Whitey” Bulger should go down as one of the year’s most haunting.
In Black Mass, Bulger is a cackling, dead-eyed, ruthless killer, bound to pull the trigger or get one of his goons to do so at the slightest sign of disloyalty in his inner-circle of equally heartless men. He often sits in stone-cold silence, and when he chooses to speak, he never misses a beat, stammers, or retracts on his statements; he’s too assured and confident for that. He knows when to talk, he knows how to cover things up, and he knows exactly how to manipulate and stay in control.
This is undoubtedly why he rose to prominence and became the leader of organized crime in South Boston. The brother of Massachusetts Senator Billy Bulger (Benedict Cumberbatch), Bulger keeps his brother from having the state government infiltrate and corrupt his turf, in addition to being an FBI informant to help take down rival Mafia families. He provides tips and kickbacks to FBI Agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), a lifelong friend of Whitey and Billy’s, who shares the same concepts of loyalty that Whitey does. With two divisions that could potentially send his Winter Hill Gang to jail taken care of, Whitey’s biggest concern now is managing his team and making sure members of other Mafia families do not attempt to overthrow his power.
In the background are people like Charles McGuire (Kevin Bacon), Connolly’s boss, who is dumbfounded as to why, despite all the effort and work Connolly has put into Bulger, he can’t bring him down, Robert Fitzpatrick (Adam Scott), another coworker of Connolly’s, Stephen Flemmi (Rory Cochrane), Whitey’s right-hand man who usually has a rifle in his hand, Deborah Hussey (Juno Temple), a young prostitute who gets caught up in Stephen and Whitey’s business, and Kevin Weeks (Jesse Plemons), a young man who is taken under the wing of Whitey for his diligence and level-headed attitude, and whom eventually came through to the FBI to help bust Whitey in 2011.
Many crime-dramas feel like vignettes of violence, drinking, negotiating, and cursing, and Black Mass‘s pacing is a bit more evident of its looseness than other slickly edited pictures of the genre (Casino comes to mind, for one). However, the acting here is a powerhouse display of natural talent on everybody’s part, even the lesser players like Scott and Temple, who are almost guaranteed to get minimal to no recognition.
Edgerton’s constant balance of working to assist his force and remain loyal to his lifelong pal is one that is shown through his character’s high stress levels and constant workaholic nature, an acting challenge he handles beautifully by conveying just what his character feels smothered by. Cumberbatch, while a lesser pawn in this film, no doubt, is another incredibly watchable presence here, who is simply trying to do his job whilst ignoring the brazen criminal activity of his brother. Other supporting players, like Cochrane and Plemons, do a great job at just being very natural and human, thanks to Cooper’s observant direction, which I’ll get back to, and, finally, there’s Kevin Bacon, who talks like a Southie victim to a year’s worth of nasal congestion. A gripping performance from Kevin Bacon is hard to come by in this day and age, but he nails his character’s attributes all the way through, by sometimes being as argumentative and dictative as the mob bosses he’s going after.
Moreover, while much of this acting comes together because of the actors’ natural strengths, the film also works because Cooper (who directed 2013’s tragically underrated Out of the Furnace) knows how to handle over a dozen different talents at once, and how to showcase them. He takes the inhuman and makes them human, with lingering shots of facial expressions, particularly eyes (consider a key scene that focuses on Cochrane after an almost inevitable, but guilt-ridden death), and careful, mannered movements of his characters. Partly why I feel Depp shines so much in this film is because Cooper knows what to focus on with him when it comes to showing off his skills as an actor, and with that, Black Mass becomes an observant film of human sensibilities.
Black Mass is a great way to kick off awards season, and its ensemble cast, all of whom at different points in their career, makes the film hold a variety of appeal. Its pacing and structure may be a little loose, but its loose ends are largely held together by the powerhouse display of directorial and acting talent on display at all times here. We’re lucky to get one good crime drama a year, and this year, we’re very lucky to have gotten Black Mass.