Review: Black Mass… a slowdance with the devil

Directed by: Scott Cooper

Starring: Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch


There’s never any question about it in the film… Jimmy “Whitey” Bulger chose every step of his own path.  He sought to make himself head of the Winter Hill Gang in South Boston.  He eliminated people in his way, and also those who could contribute to his downfall. He was a criminal and a sociopath.  Black Mass, its title taken from the book “Black Mass:  Whitey Bulger, the FBI and a Devil’s Deal”, follows the story of Jimmy Bulger from the time he became an FBI informant. (I’m not quite sure who the devil is in this scenario, Bulger or the FBI.)

Bulger was drafted as such by John Connolly from the neighborhood, friends with his Senator brother Billy. Connolly has come home to Southie, a hometown boy intending to do good. Problem is that he’s landed between a rock and a hard place.  He contacts the brothers with the goal to warn Jimmy that the FBI has interest in his activities and wants him to inform on other organized crime factions – which also conveniently take the heat off Jimmy.  In turn, Jimmy and his activities would be  shielded from investigation.

Bulger gladly uses his status as informant to heighten his dealings.  At first, Jimmy seems juxtaposed with childhood friend, and seemingly super-agent John Connolly. He only feeds the FBI what he absolutely must to continue their relationship. The irony is that his protector, Connolly, is the one that is turned… sucked into the mire without notice or care.

The film does well to take the viewer back in history.  The timeline got a little blurry for me though as it was obvious that time was passing, yet the characters didn’t seem to age. The story unfolds almost like a documentary, clearly tied to the accounts from the FBI report. It shows us how Bulger continues to escalate his activities and wield his power without concern of exposure given his standing.

Johnny Depp certainly delivers as restrained and cold-blooded Bulger.  This type of performance has been some time coming from Mr. Depp. (Seems he’s had a lot of “one for me” roles lately.)  His Bulger seems to carry on as though this is what he was meant for. The underlings of the crime family do well to show their deference to their general, for fear of their lives. As the FBI agent, Joel Edgerton plays the most compelling character to me: vainglorious at the onset, then later shameless as he trawls for evidence of his fate. Cumberbatch does well to convey the distance he is forced to keep between his office and his brother. There’s a large and fine supporting cast on both sides of the law.

table scene black mass

The fact that the director has more credits in front of the camera than behind, is not surprising to me. The film unfolds in a quite plodding manner, and unfortunately little is done to build tension even as the heat comes down on the crime lord and the FBI agent.  Perhaps, this is intended, but it seems as though the telling is constrained by the source material.  I have to say that I kind of expected more.  This is not my favorite genre, but a good film should draw you in, regardless.  I say, should. I didn’t feel the story was particularly gripping until the impending climax loomed on the horizon.

Cindy Says: Not quite 4 stars, more like ⭐️⭐️⭐️½ to ¾.  I found myself fidgeting in my seat and hoped that they would hurry and be busted already. Also, Depp’s blue contact lenses lent him a “creature of the undead” vibe, which was also quite a distraction.

Recommendations:  If you like this type of genre, you must re/watch The Departed, which was inspired by Bulger and the mob boss’s activities. Directed by Martin Scorsese, its obvious why this film won four Academy Awards.  Scorsese does well to develop characters, suspense and anticipation — even before the titles.

Please comment and tell me what you think!

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