A barely recognisable balding and blue-eyed Johnny Depp is the amoral James ‘Whitey’ Buldger in new film Black Mass. Depp’s previous portrayals of real life criminals in Blow and Public Enemies produced mixed results but his Black Mass performance is as enthralling and chilling as the title suggests. A human cancer destroying and enveloping everything he touches, including the plot.
Like the majority of gangster films, it is set over a prolonged time period, 1975-1985, and maps the mobsters rise and fall. Once a small time hood in Boston’s ‘southie’ neighbourhood, Whitey’s childhood friend, now FBI agent, John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) makes him an informant in exchange for a free pass from the FBI. However once the Italian rival gangsters are gone, Whitey creates his own empire whilst having Connolly protecting him.
Director Scott Cooper wisely avoids impression of Scorsese or Coppola and maintains an oppressive atmosphere featuring highly charged scenes of dialogue. There are scenes of brutal violence and shocking murders but these are not the memorable moments. In a scene filled with well-crafted pauses, Whitey’s political brother played by an understated Benedict Cumberbatch efficiently dismisses Connolly’s attempts to ensare him. Depp also shines in a dinner scene where he questions the loyalty of Connolly’s colleague when he relinquishes a ‘secret family recipe’. The tension is accompanied by Tom Holkenborg’s score designed to enhance the tragic elements.
Depp’s menacing calm is a career redeeming performance, despite never truly breaking into Whitey’s emotional interior. Edgerton’s mannerisms and evolution also deserve credit, with his wife (Julianne Nicholson) telling him “you dress different”, “you walk different” as his blind loyalty blurs the lines between cop and criminal. However the female characters are woefully underserved, as are many of the undefined supporting cast.
The film is overlong with a better paced fall than rise. It hints at building to greatness only to become more broody and oppressive. The film does linger with you after watching but the compelling performances are more memorable than the film itself.