Editor’s Notes: Black Mass is available on Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack February 16th.
Taking place from 1975 through 1995, Black Mass (Warner Home Video) is about childhood loyalties, murder, deals gone bad, illegal money, and shattered relationships. It stars Johnny Depp as Boston gangster James “Whitey” Bulger. Told mostly in flashback from the point of view of Bulger gang members and acquaintances who cooperated with the FBI in exchange for reduced sentences, the movie is a gritty, unromantic look at the day-to-day dealings of a psychopathic killer.
Local FBI agent and Bulger’s childhood friend, John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) convinces his superiors that Bulger could be a valuable asset in cleaning up Boston’s Italian mafia, Bulger’s rivals in crime. Reluctantly, Connolly’s superiors agree to what will become unlikely bedfellows. Bulger provides information helpful to the feds, and they go easy on investigations into his nefarious dealings. The deal pays off. Finally, the FBI has collars to show in their efforts to clean up Boston, but Connolly and fellow agent John Morris (David Harbour) find themselves increasingly trapped in a series of evidence suppressions.
Bulger’s brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch) is State Senator and makes it a point to distance himself from Whitey’s underworld dealings, but eventually is forced to serve as liaison to set up a meeting between Whitey and Connolly.
Depp has managed to transform himself physically into the Boston crime king, with slicked back thinning hair, blackened dead tooth, and pock-marked complexion. But it’s his look — his dead stare and his calculating eyes — that send a shiver up one’s back. This is a man for whom murder is simply part of business. He is remorseless and unapologetic, striking decisively without warning, apparently enjoying seeing his victims die slow, painful deaths.
Edgerton (The Gift, Exodus Gods and Kings) has the less showy role, portraying Connolly as an ambitious agent relying on his childhood association with a criminal to work his way up the career ladder. Edgerton has an eager-boy look and conveys wide-eyed enthusiasm but doesn’t adequately show Connolly’s conflict as circumstances begin to close in on him. His sense of loyalty is the means to his advancement but soon becomes the road to his downfall.
Other stand-out performances include Kevin Bacon as Connolly’s FBI boss Charles McGuire, Peter Sarsgaard as a twitchy drug addict, Jesse Plemons as Bulger’s right-hand man, and Corey Stoll as Fred Wyshak, the FBI agent determined to nail Bulger.
Director Scott Cooper has fashioned a solid crime thriller. Though it lacks the character depth of the Godfather films or Goodfellas, it does paint a sordid picture of a crime king who thrived in his neighborhood, loved by many, feared by many. Unlike the fictional Michael Corleone and Henry Hill, James “Whitey” Bulger is a one-note character, a grim shadowy figure who’s never fully explored, even though he is in fact a real person.
Rated R for brutal violence and strong language, Black Mass contains many standard gangster movie touches while showing how one man’s influence can corrupt a city, friends, and local law enforcement. The theme is that loyalty is admirable unless it is misdirected.
Bonus extras on the Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack include the featurettes “Johnny Depp: Becoming Whitey Bulger,” “Black Mass: Deeperst Cover, Darkest Crime,” and background on the capture of Bulger, the FBI’s most wanted fugitive.