"A solid piece of crime drama anchored by strong performances."
At times truth is a hell of a lot stranger than fiction. Such is the curious case of Whitey Bulger, where what can kindly be called ‘good intentions’ led to corruption, cover-up and the numerous murders spanning decades.
During the mid -’70s, the FBI entered into a relationship with a known criminal, in an attempt to take down the Mafia in Boston. Founded on a basis of a school yard friendship and a shared past, FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) manages to convince a South Boston gangster to turn informant. However James ‘Whitey’ Bulger (Johnny Depp) has greater plans than just informing on his competition. A violent, calculating and manipulative personality, Whitey soon starts to change the nature of the relationship, and it is Connolly that finds himself used as Bulger’s criminal empire grows.
After a disastrous series of misfires, it is good to see Depp back on form. In Black Mass he is genuinely unnerving, looking out from behind icy contacts with a stare that is devoid of humanity. There is something serpentine about his portrayal of Bulger, that he is weighing up everything and is capable of striking with a deadly speed if anything is found wanting. We get few demonstrations of emotions from the character, and often when we do they are explosions of violent anger with bloody results.
By contrast Edgerton, who carries the other half of the film, is full of false bravado. There is a lot of bluster in his Connolly, as he fast talks his way out of predicaments and blatantly postures. At times though you can see this all drop away, and he is standing there as lost and afraid as the little schoolboy Bulger first granted his protection to. It is an unflattering portrayal, but one Edgerton absolutely nails, giving it life and character. This enriches Black Mass, giving this complex and flawed character for audiences to dive into. Connolly’s motivations are fascinating, and add depth into what could easily be a simple portrayal of evil.
This strange asymmetrical relationship aside, there is not much in Black Mass that we haven’t seen before. Its exploration of the criminal underworld of South Boston through the ‘70s and ‘80s all feels vaguely familiar territory that other films have covered first. Bulger’s story is interesting, but the choice to tell it through a collection of witness statements diffuses it. We see through the eyes of others, and at an emotional distance, robbing it of some of the impact. As it is told through prisoner interrogations, its narrative impact is lessened too, as it is clear where this will end for the Winter Hill Gang.
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A solid piece of crime drama anchored by strong performances from both Depp and Edgerton.
Originally published in X-Press Magazine