Black Mass is the true story of James “Whitey” Bulger. Bulger, played by Johnny Depp, became the “Godfather” of the Irish mob in the late 70s, and manipulated the FBI into taking down the rival Italian mob. Bulger ruled South Boston for nearly two decades through a string of political connections, violent murders, drug dealing, and racketeering. He was on America’s top ten most wanted list for twelve years.
This film in some ways is like many gangster films. The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972), Reservoir Dogs (Quentin Tarantino, 1992), and Goodfellas (Martin Scorsese, 1990) are a few examples. It is casually violent, tonally grey, and filled with men who think they are doing what is right in their own way. The difference for Black Mass is that it is based on entirely true stories from recent history. I am aware that Goodfellas was also based on a true story, however with that film the style and portrayal was more mythic than the down to earth grittiness we see in Black Mass.
Another tactic that was used to distance the viewer was the prevalence of wide shots. Very rarely did we find ourselves up close and personal with the violence. Often when someone is killed we see the victim and murderer in the same frame. This allows one to view the act for what it is: brutal. We don’t cut to a close-up of a mobster’s emotional face and see merely a flash of gunfire. And we don’t cut to a close-up of blood splattering across the screen. We see brutal acts by vicious men for what they are: evil.
One of the central motifs of Black Mass is the negative connotation of being “a rat,” also known as an informant for the FBI. Yet, Black Mass does not miss the irony that every party involved at some point became an informant. This is illustrated beautifully in the opening scene when Kevin Weeks, played by Jesse Plemons, starts his conversation with the FBI by saying, “First thing I want to say is that I’m not a rat. I just want that on the record.”
At the end of the day what makes this film worth seeing are the performances by Johnny Depp, and Benedict Cumberbatch. Benedict Cumberbatch continues to add to a long line of roles that simply accentuate his range of acting. But, Johnny Depp is the one who truly surprises in this film. After a string of typecast roles of the quirky, unusual that became so normal we stopped caring about Johnny Depp films, Depp reminds us why we all loved him in the first place. He is an amazing actor who can play any role he so desires. It is my hope that this film nets Depp many more roles outside the roles as the quirky, unusual factor. Go see Johnny Depp in one of the finest roles in his career.