- RatedM18 /GenreAction, Crime, Drama
Johnny Depp employs bad teeth and a semi-balding hairdo to take on the role of James "Whitey" Bulger, crime boss of an infamous gang that operated in Boston.
In the mid-70s, Bulger was brought in as an informant for the FBI by his childhood friend John Connolly (portrayed by Joel Edgerton). In exchange for information that brought down the Mafia, Whitey was allowed to do as he wanted.
Director Scott Cooper, who received critical acclaim with the indie hit Crazy Heart, has also roped in numerous talents besides Depp.
MORE: On The Set - 'Black Mass'
Benedict Cummerbatch portrays Whitey's brother William Bulger, who went on to become a highly successful politician. Kevin Bacon and Corey Scott also have key roles.
Cooper's focus is soundly on Whitey early on in the film. There's a scene where he plays gin rummy with his mother and loses to her while William hovers in the background. Things take a turn when Whitey's only son dies as a result of a rare disease. After that, Whitey just becomes a menacing figure; a character who's almost two-dimensional in his greed and malice.
Thereafter, Cooper, as though afraid he's going to get things wrong, stays a respectful distance from Whitey the man.
Whitey becomes a character we've seen in so many other gangster films; the unpredictable hood who might be making a joke while getting ready to stab you in the back. Depp gives one of his best performances in the role, but Cooper fails to give us deeper insight into the man, rather than the myth.
One of the movie's great finds is Edgerton as John Connolly. As he tries to protect Whitey he gets sucked into the crime boss' activities, and eventually plays a part in the murder of one of Whitey's associates.
It's a gradual descent which we know how, but we don't ever quite comprehend why. Expect a Best Supporting Actor nod for Edgerton during Oscar season for his performance.
Despite these flaws, Black Mass is a gripping crime thriller due to the astounding story. Cooper manages to capture the complex dance between Connolly and Whitey, and how the FBI agent became ensnared in Whitey's machinations.
The movie never sags as it follows Whitey's ascent and subsequent fall.
It's a pity that the relationship between the Bulger brothers is not fully explored.
How did the two brothers take such different paths in life? It's never quite fully explained, and like too many other things, Cooper doesn't really give the viewer enough information to form their own opinions.
'Black Mass' falls short of being a crime classic, but it does provide a chilling look into how the FBI ended up shielding a criminal who rose up to become one of American's most feared mob bosses.
It's a terrifying yet engaging film that is one of the year's best.
'Black Mass' opens 17 September