Boston hoodlum Jimmy "Whitey" Bulger (Johnny Depp) was on the FBI's Most Wanted List for years thanks to his criminal activities, but his involvement in crime was more damning to the authorities than that may sound. His arrest was demanded after two former associates, Kevin Weeks (Jesse Plemons) and Stephen Flemmi (Rory Cochrane) gave evidence in return for lenient sentences, and Weeks started off by telling of how he became involved with Bulger, basically when he was a doorman for his bar and got into trouble with one of the gangster's family members, leading to a fight in the street. But rather than punish him, Bulger liked his chutzpah and welcomed him into his circle of hoodlums, who included some powerful men...
The list of real life gangster tales was increased yet again by this biography of one of the most influential of his kind, in yet another example of the movies' indictment of the past in the twenty-first century, a trend where it had become very fashionable to look back on society and condemn it for allowing various instances of severe lawbreaking to be gotten away with either by mishandling, ignorance or deliberate cover ups. In this case, Black Mass was taken seriously as a film because it was regarded as Johnny Depp finally setting aside all his more recent silly roles and getting his teeth into something more dramatic to really prove what he was capable of. As far as that went, he was undeniably impressive.
Even so, he was slathered under layers of makeup to make him resemble the real man he was playing, who he didn't especially look too much like, so to convey a half decent performance under that lot and not allow the makeup to do the acting for him was an achievement in itself. But those who had stuck with Depp through thick and thin were well aware he didn't become a star because of a bunch of over the top and campy pantomimes, so would be less surprised, if no less welcoming, to view his stylings here. As far as being true to the actual Bulger, opinions were divided, and it was true the film drastically simplified what was a complex tale of multiple misdemeanours, with director Scott Cooper less relying on the everyday banality of the crimes and more turning it into what looked like a horror movie.
Fair enough, with all those victims being murdered it was an unavoidably grisly yarn, and we didn't even see the whole tally of those who died though we did see enough to be in little doubt Bulger was a dangerous man. But then again, the film goes further to point out it was men like him who were actually running America, indeed the world, as they not only commanded their own empires but had their octopus-like tentacles in a number of institutions and organisations, from terrorists to the supposed law enforcers. Benedict Cumberbatch was improbably cast as Bulger's senator brother who is rather too close to his sibling, and Joel Edgerton was the FBI official John Connolly who was all too keen to consolidate his sense of power by taking on Bulger as an informant, positing he was a low level gangster, then obscuring his actual atrocities as Bulger orchestrated various illegal but incredibly lucrative schemes.
An oppressive mood was unavoidable, and Cooper underlined that by the inclusion of the women in these men's lives, who are each and every one intimidated, threatened and in some cases killed off to keep them in line. Although the focus was on the males, the females suffered mightily as a result, and they became the stand-ins for the cost of such an insidious degree of criminality, from the distraught mother of Bulger's son (Dakota Johnson) to the terrified wife of Connolly (Julianne Nicholson) and more, no matter that they thought they were respected in their home town of Boston; they were not, it was a climate of fear that they were propagating. Nevertheless, for all these sinister machinations Black Mass sought to shine a light on, it remained a murky proposition where you rightly felt you were not getting as full a picture as a two hour movie could deliver, and with scene after scene shot in the same crepuscular gloom it did grow monotonous early on, a tone that did not quite lift. Add to that the feeling that other gangster movies had beaten it to the punch, and this was absorbing enough without really being inspiring, in spite of some fine acting. Music by Junkie XL.