Black Mass Review

Black Mass Poster
Title: Black Mass
Director: Scott Cooper
Starring: Johnny Depp
Joel Edgerton
Benedict Cumberbatch
Kevin Bacon
Genre: Crime
Runtime: 2 Hour 2 mins
Music: Tom Holkenborg
Studio: Rat-Pac Dune
Certificate: US: R
UK: 15
Release Date: US: 18 Sep 2015
UK: 27 Nov 2015
See If You Like: The Departed
Welcome back Johnny Depp.


We’ve missed you. You’ve taken all of your mediocre roles and the scathing reviews that accompanied them and shattered them. You have given us not only one of the greatest performances of the year, but also one of the most sinister portrayals of a gangster I’ve ever seen.

Depp plays James “Whitey” Bulger, an ambitious ruffian who leads an Irish-American mob crew called the Winter Hill Gang from the mid-1970s until the mid-1990s. When Bulger learns that the Italian Mafia has come to town and is threatening his turf, he partners with childhood friend and cop John Connolly (a faultless Joel Edgerton), to inform their investigation into rooting out the Mafia. In exchange, the feds will turn a blind eye to the Winter Hill Gang’s conduct (unless that conduct involves murder and drugs, which it inevitably does, of course).

The Departed will constantly be in the back of your mind as you watch this film, which is one of the best compliments I can give it. Black Mass has the same authentic, primal, Irish grittiness to it, but in no way does it try to suck up to its predecessors. This is a powerful film with its own unique story to tell, and it can stand toe-to-toe with the gangster pictures of Scorsese’s prime.



Black Mass is filled with strong performances. Edgerton’s portrayal of a corrupt cop who never seems to realise he’s in over his head is fantastic. Cumberbatch is grappling with the accent, but he still manages to add some family drama to the violent spectacle. Rory Cochrane has beefed up for his role as Bulger’s sidekick Stephen Flemmi, and it’s his interactions with the head honcho that really make us think about what we’re witnessing. There are scenes where Flemmi brings out the best (and worst) in Bulger, and they further elevate the movie above the standard crime fare. Jesse Plemons as rookie Kevin Weeks is terrifying; the make-up crew have obviously worked overtime on him as well, and he inhabits his role seamlessly. Dakota Johnson, Kevin Bacon, Corey Stoll, Julianne Nicholson and Peter Sarsgaard are all given roles that show promise, but there just isn’t enough time to give them the chance to truly develop, which is a shame, because they’re all superb.

Black Mass‘s trailers promised violence, and violence is what you get. But director Scott Cooper knows when to go all-out and when to show restraint, making the intermittent fusillade of gunfire and gore all the more shocking.

Black Mass Johnny Depp 02

Aided by Depp’s performance, the script by Jez Butterworth and Mark Mallouk (based on the book Black Mass by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill), examines Bulger’s family life with honesty and surprising soulfulness. It’s in his dealings with his frustrated wife, his son, and his aging mother that we get to see the true character behind the suave, and when you get to the bottom of it, he’s just an aspiring thug who’s determined to be better, wealthier, and more successful than those around him. He isn’t professional, nor is his gang, and at times displays sheer stupidity and recklessness with his business. But Bulger is respected by his friends, his family, and his community. Like all the other great gangster pics, Black Mass makes its despicable characters likeable, or, at least,  immensely watchable. The movie doesn’t settle for black-and-white depictions of its antagonists, and instead delves into the complex psychology of violent, desperate men and lets us choose whose side we’re on.

There were many times during this film where I had to remind myself that I was actually watching Johnny Depp perform. His makeup is impeccable: bright blue eyes surrounded by a haunted face which masks all emotion. Many people may question his calibre for a role like this after his recent outings; all the makeup in the world wouldn’t make a poor performance great, but Depp has turned up for Black Mass. His demonic persona and chilling voice prevent you from taking your eyes off of him: he is literally hypnotising.

Cooper’s direction plus the haunting use of music makes Black Mass feel almost like a horror film in some places, while his writers have struck a smooth balance of police procedural and gangster feud. The movie is almost perfect, with the only thing letting it down is the fact that some important characters weren’t given enough time to develop and have an impact. With that being said, Black Mass is one of the best films of the year, features one of the most impressive performances in any gangster movie ever , and manages to tell an intriguing story filled with violence, betrayal, and unexpected emotion.

Ayden Walker @walkaydenwalk.

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