Review by Gordon Justesen
Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Kevin Bacon, Jesse Plemons, Peter
Sarsgaard, Dakota Johnson, Corey Stoll
Director: Scott Cooper
Audio: DTS HD 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.40:1
Studio: Warner Bros.
Features: See Review
Length: 122 Minutes
Release Date: February 16, 2016
“How come no one has nailed Whitey Bulger? He seems to be involved in every crime in the city, and yet the bureau keeps saying he’s clean.”
“Well, what’s Bulger done?”
“What’s he done? EVERYTHING!”
Black Mass couldn’t have come out at a better time. It felt like an eternity since we’d gotten a gritty, brutal gangster movie in the vein of Scorsese. And that very notion is what keeps the movie from being the masterpiece it could have been. Characters and events in the film very much inspired Scorsese’s monumental masterpiece, The Departed, and it simply can’t live up to that film’s potent impact, but then again very few films can.
Nevertheless, director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart, Out of the Furnace) does construct a dark and effective mood in this true life gangster saga. Added to that, we get a tour de force performance from Johnny Depp in what is unquestionably the actor’s best work in years. It’s also one he’ll be remembered for when discussing his best acting work of all time.
In a role that absolutely strips him of his trademark good looks to the point that he eerily resembles Christopher Walken at times, Depp completely transforms into one of the most feared criminals of all time, Boston gangster James “Whitey” Bulger. To give you an idea of how feared he was, Bulger was the inspiration for Jack Nicholson’s role of Frank Costello in The Departed.
Through various taped confessions of associates turned informants, we witness Bulger’s rise to power as the high ruling Irish crime lord of South Boston in a time period that spans from the late 70s to the early 90s. But it didn’t just happen by way of street connections, but directly from the office of the FBI. John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), a childhood friend of Bulger’s, is one of the top agents in the bureau, and they form an alliance to help bring down the rival Italian gang.
What this boils down to is that Bulger will become an informer to the FBI, while he’s allowed to continue doing business as long as things don’t get too extreme. It soon becomes clear, as bodies start piling up and drugs continue to flood the streets of Boston, that Connolly himself becomes as much a criminal as the man he’s protecting. He idolized Bulger ever since they were kids, and now can’t avoid putting loyalty to the street above his own job as a fed.
Director Cooper knows how to round up a great cast, as illustrated by Out of the Furnace. In addition to Depp’s masterful work, we got solid performances from a strong supporting cast, most notably Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch as Bulger’s Senator brother, Kevin Bacon as an FBI operative who’s fully against Connolly’s maneuvers, and Dakota Johnson as Bulger’s wife. In just two scenes in this movie, Johnson proves that she will very much have a career in light of the criticism she received for Fifty Shades of Grey.
The one cast member I wish got more screen time is one of my favorite actors, Peter Sarsgaard. He has his best role in years as a drug addicted thug who gets mixed in Bulger’s crew, only to make a fatal move not long after. He’s perhaps the standout of the supporting cast, and is so brilliant in the limited time he has that I simply wish he was given more scenes.
While it can’t measure up to any of big league gangster pictures (The Departed, GoodFellas, Casino, etc.), Black Mass remains a most effective true life tale of crime and corruption. I do feel Depp got overlooked in the Best Actor category for this year’s Oscars, but there’s no doubt in my mind that fans of his and anyone who sees this will agree that this is a true acting achievement. And Depp himself has been on record saying this is his favorite of all the films he’s done.
Warner delivers a knockout looking Blu-ray release. The widescreen photography is tremendous here, and the Boston location feels every bit as authentic as it should. Dark levels are particularly striking, as there are many nighttime sequences in the film. Colors are absolutely perfect and the image quality is strong from beginning to end.
The DTS HD mix accompanies this violent tale terrifically. Every sound aspect from the outbursts of violence to the music score/song lineup to the sounds associated with the Boston location itself (outdoor crowd noise, etc) is perfected here in the sound delivery. Dialogue delivery is in absolute top form and balanced out tremendously well with the aforementioned sound aspects.
There are three basic features here, starting with “Deepest Cover, Darkest Crime”, a 20 minutes piece that features various interviews with the cast and crew, followed by “Johnny Depp: Becoming Whitey Bulger”, which looks at the actor’s stunning transformation into the character. The third of the lot, though, is indeed the standout and that’s “The Manhunt for Whitey Bulger”, which is an hour long look at the real Whitey Bulger and even provides some backstory info that didn’t make it into the film.
Though it had potential to be an even greater film, Black Mass is nonetheless worth your time, especially if you’re a sucker for true life crime stories and are a devoted fan of Johnny Depp!