There’s really only one reason to see Black Mass – and that is the performance of Johnny Depp as south Boston’s notorious Irish mob boss James “Whitey” Bulger. Depp has been hit or miss (okay, maybe just miss) in recent years, so it’s nice to see him in something that doesn’t suck, in a role that could very well get him an Oscar nomination. Black Mass isn’t a great movie – in fact, as a crime drama based on a rather fascinating true story, it’s not very dramatic or entertaining. But it does have some killer moments (pun intended) and solid performances by a supporting cast that includes: Joel Edgerton as FBI agent John Connolly, a childhood friend who protects Bulger by claiming him as an informant against the bigger, badder Italian Mafia; Benedict Cumberbatch as Whitey’s brother Billy, a powerful Massachusetts state senator who seems to be in constant denial of Whitey’s dark side; and Dakota Johnson (50 Shades) as Whitey’s girlfriend and mother of his child. Her role is small but she definitely makes the most of it.
The movie focuses primarily on Bulger’s alternately warm-hearted (to a degree) and cold-hearted (to a larger degree) persona, his crazy perceptions about loyalty and betrayal, his chilling brutality, and his unholy alliance with the FBI and the increasingly corrupt Connolly. Sadly, Black Mass does not get into one of the more intriguing aspects of the Bulger story – his 16 years on the run from law enforcement after a 1995 indictment. It’s no secret he was found living in an apartment in Santa Monica, California in 2011 and brought to trial two years later (He’s 86 now, serving two life sentences, and apparently takes issue with the movie and Depp’s portrayal. Cry me a river.). So when you know how a story ends, it’s disappointing to see a movie cut out at what should be a key turning point.
Bottom line: Depp is interesting to watch, mostly because you wouldn’t recognize him as Johnny Depp if it weren’t for all the hype about how much he is made to resemble Bulger. However – if you don’t like the crime drama genre (along the lines of The Departed), or easily cringe (like I do) at bursts of violence (of the gun and fist variety), then you may want to skip Black Mass and just wait for the Depp highlight reel come Awards Season.