BFI #LFF 2015: BLACK MASS Review


One film causing a stir at the 59th BFI London Film Festival is BLACK MASS, an American crime drama directed by Scott Cooper.

Based on the best-selling 2001 book by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill, BLACK MASS tells the true story of James “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp), the brother of a state senator Billy Bulger (Benedict Cumberbatch) and the most infamous violent criminal in the history of South Boston, who became an FBI informant for childhood friend John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) in order to take down the Mafia invading his turf.

The story begins in 1975 with Bulger, the razor-toothed leader of the violent Winter Hill gang, controlling a small-time hood. While Bulger is a local menace, he clearly loves his family including his mum, his brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch), his young son and his partner Lindsey (Dakota Johnson).

Bulger’s rise through the criminal ranks begins when childhood friend John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), now a high ranking FBI agent, convinces Bulger to forge an unholy alliance to trade secrets and take down Boston’s Italian Mafia in the process. Before long, Bulger’s power spirals out of control, leading to murders, drug dealing, racketeering indictments, and, ultimately, Bulger making the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List.

Dark, brutal and well-executed, BLACK MASS boasts all the elements of a great gangster movie. The production design is excellent, the cinematography is superb (Masanobu Takayanagi gives the film a moody noir feel that looks stunning) and the cast performances are spot on. Scott Cooper also proves himself to be a very strong director, with his stylistic elements and music choice (a score by Junkie XL) fitting the tough nature of the film.

Unfortunately, where BLACK MASS falls down is with its sense of momentum. The real story of Whitey Bulger is fascinating and on paper, makes one hell of movie, but because there is so much to tell, Cooper has a difficult time cutting it down. As a consequence, Black Mass is full of subplots, side stories, loose ends and character twists with one murder after another with no clear point, lacking the energy or charisma of classic mobster flick.

On the plus side, BLACK MASS strength lies in its terrific central performances from the ensemble cast. Johnny Depp is absolutely terrifying as Whitey Bulger, looking almost vampire like with his piercing blue eyes, unsettling growl and demonic grin. His portrayal is venomous, vile and utterly mesmerizing and is one of the finest performances of his career.

Joel Edgerton is equally excellent as John Connolly, the power-hungry FBI agent who destroys everything as a result of his deal with Bulger. Benedict Cumberbatch also puts in strong performance as Whitey’s do-good brother Senator Billy Bulger, even if his talent feels a little wasted in an underdeveloped subplot.

The film’s supporting cast including Kevin Bacon, Corey Stoll, Peter Sarsgaard, Julianne Nicholson, Adam Scott, Juno Temple, Jesse Plemons and Dakota Johnson, all deliver a decent performance. Disappointingly Dakota Johnson doesn’t get much time on screen as Bulger’s wife, Lindsey but when she does, her domestic scenes opposite Depp are enthralling and show what this film could have been with more time.

While its edges are a little rough, BLACK MASS is ultimately an entertaining tale about one of the most infamous violent criminals in the history of South Boston and is well worth a watch, even if just for Johnny Depp’s performance alone.

3.5 out of 5 stars

BLACK MASS made its UK gala premiere at the 59th BFI London Film Festival on 11 October and is released in the UK on 27 November 2015.