Perhaps this is just me, but it seems like the point when Oscar season officially starts keeps getting more blurred as time goes on. A good example of this is that “Black Mass” was released just last week but is definitely good enough to generate Oscar buzz. If nothing else, this film should snag a couple of nominations, especially in the acting categories.
The film alternates between interviews of three former members of James “Whitey” Bulger’s (Johnny Depp) gang with the FBI and three specific blocks of time when Bulger became one of Boston’s most notorious criminals. The first block of time takes place in 1975, after Bulger is released from Alcatraz and already taking part in local crime. He hits a gold mine, however, when FBI agent and childhood friend John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) makes a deal with Bulger: if Bulger would help take down Italian gangsters in Boston, Connolly would help protect Bulger from the FBI. Both get what they want, (the film does a good job of showing the territory fights between the Irish and Italian gangsters in Boston during this time) but Bulger is by far the bigger beneficiary. After his son dies, Bulger changes.
The second block starts in 1981, when Bulger expands his operations to places like Miami and Connolly becomes more corrupted by his alliance with Bulger. The third starts in 1985, when Connolly’s corruption is all but complete and Bulger, further hardened by the death of his mother, dips his toes into working with the IRA. Eventually, both overplay their hands, Connolly ends up getting arrested and Bulger goes on the run from the FBI until his eventual capture in 2011.
It’s surprising to know that Bulger was the second-most wanted criminal by the FBI for years. After seeing this movie, it shouldn’t be surprising, but then again, the man who held the top spot after Bulger was Osama Bin Laden. Looking at this now feels almost antiquated in the post-9/11 era but Bulger was one bad dude, even by American gangster standards. The film does a good job of giving us a concise look at several periods in Bulger’s life, even if the full picture would be much longer than what’s shown here. And what is shown is done excellently.
Director Scott Cooper shows restraint with his technique, preferring to show us the simple happenings and occasional shocking violence that occurred in Bulger’s universe. The film doesn’t show off its period detail, even though certain things (the cars, a green telephone here, a dial TV there) are clearly from several decades ago. Mostly, Cooper just tells the story and lets his cast guide us through it.
This is a wise move, considering that the cast is terrific throughout. Benedict Cumberbatch is charming as Massachusetts State Sen. (eventually Senate President) Billy Bulger, who ends up having blood on his hands simply for being related to Whitey and being caught in the tangle of Whitey and the FBI. Dakota Johnson, in a small but key role as Whitey’s girlfriend, helps show a more human side of Whitey’s life before the death of their son set him on a bad course. Kevin Bacon brings a much-needed edge as Connolly’s boss, who rightfully chews Connolly out for his embarrassing performance in taking Bulger down as Bulger’s crimes keep growing.
However, the nominations will surely go to Depp and Edgerton. Edgerton, as Connolly, masterfully shows a man who ultimately pays the price for allowing his loyalty to his childhood friend to corrupt him. And Depp, in the span of about two hours, has the last laugh at critics who noticed a dip in his fortunes after a string of flops and questionable choices (he might never live down “The Lone Ranger”). Here, his mannerisms are kept in check and gives a charismatic, masterful performance of a man who gets more dangerous with time. One highlight, already shown in one of the trailers, is when he eggs one of Connolly’s FBI coworkers to spill the beans on a secret family recipe for steak, which turns into a chilling threat by Bulger should he leak out information about Bulger. The air gets sucked out of the room, yet Bulger bookends it with a maniacal cackle. Johnny Depp’s comeback, folks.
Is “Black Mass” a new classic in the gangster film genre? Probably not. Is it Oscar bait? Decidedly so. Is this problematic? Not really, because this film is worth seeing just for the fact that it rescued Johnny Depp from disappearing into self-parody and reminds us why he’s one of the biggest movie stars today.