Spanning more than a decade of chronological narrative time, the ambitious Black Mass stars Johnny Depp as James “Whitey” Bulger, the notorious Southie professional criminal turned Boston kingpin of the 1970s and ‘80s. His decades old tenure as being one of America’s most wanted was recently terminated several years ago when the FBI finally located him in Santa Monica, California.
Black Mass is set within a sparse frame story: a series of FBI testimonials given by Bulger’s underlings after he fled Boston, which serve to make logical time skips forward to highlight not only Bulger’s most extreme crimes for government record, but also give dramatic insight into how certain events in his life eventually shaped his gruesome personality. It shaped him from someone who may have cared for his neighborhood and showed outward loyalty for his long time acquaintances (though not enough not to exploit them), into the hateful and sociopathic criminal he became known for.
While Black Mass in no ways shies from Bulger’s potential for paranoid brutality, credit goes to Depp for being able to portray with some subtly the charismatic and caring man that may have existed within the monster.
Yet, if it were not for such convincing performances by Depp (especially) and the perhaps ill motived FBI accomplice John Connelly, played by Joel Edgerton, the plot of Black Mass itself could justifiably be argued to stand as a fairly standard crime drama.
In the early 1970s, Connelly recruits Bulger to be an FBI informant in order that they might mutually benefit from the obliteration of Boston’s troublesome Cosa Nostra, headed by Gennaro Angiulo, which stifles Bulger’s criminal aspirations and create a serious problem for federal law enforcement.
While the dramatic plot points may rely on testimony for lack of objective history, and play out as an archetypical progression of the rise and fall of the forbidden relationship between the corrupted and the corruptible, the overall effective pacing between character building dialogue and often violent action carry Black Mass through some predictable plot progression.
Both Depp and Edgerton each portray their own respective embodiment of reprehensibility with enough depth to convince that, while their terrible crimes committed, whether as perpetrator or accomplice, may not be pitiable or understandable or even sane, they do not ring as hollow actions due to the well portrayed motivations of believable characters.
While perhaps not living up to the highest peaks of its ambition, Black Mass still stands out as an overall good film that contains some great performances. I highly recommend it to any fans of dramatic history or crime drama.