Now Playing: Johnny Depp paralyzes and terrorizes in Black Mass

Nick Blank


Even for Johnny Depp, known for his deeply engrossing characters, Black Mass is one of his best performances. Depp plays Boston’s most infamous Irish-American gangster, James “Whitey” Bulger, whose organized crime empire virtually owned half the city from the late 70s to early 90s. Armed with a gruff Boston accent, Depp’s pale, taut face is stoic and still. His darkened right tooth commands attention with each crooked smile. Bulger has the steely, duplicitous nature of all great gangsters, and it helps that Depp looks incredibly similar to one.


Graphic by Rachelle Keller
Graphic by Rachelle Keller

Black Mass portrays Bulger’s path to Boston mob royalty, but also delves into how he went from second to first on the food chain: becoming an FBI informant, which enabled his Winter Hill Gang’s violent exploits. The FBI dubs Bulger a psychopath, and it’s easy to see why. Bulger murders impulsively, and at one point, the film alludes to his introduction of hard drugs to South Boston. If you say two bad words about him, you’ll end up in the bottom of the harbor.

Bulger owes his success to powerful family and friends. His younger brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch) is the president of the Massachusetts senate. FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) and Bulger grew up as kids in South Boston. Together, Bulger and Connolly game the system. Connolly offers Bulger immunity from the law if he occasionally gives Connolly information on rival gangs, in turn, boosting Connolly’s status within the FBI. Connolly and Bulger’s relationship is the driving force of the film, and it holds up pretty well.

As Whitey Bulger, Depp possesses the unpredictability of Joe Pesci in Goodfellas. He’s withdrawn and sinister, yet clever and pragmatic, leading hapless victims to discrete locations and chatting them up, forcing their guard down. Depp makes Bulger’s instant transition from friend to killer seem authentic, portraying the man as calculative and cold, making every scene shocking.

Unfortunately, there isn’t much else to Black Mass other than Depp’s astounding performance. Director Scott Cooper exhibits haste in the film’s pacing, refusing to develop the supporting cast anywhere past “Henchman #3” or “worried housewife.”

Cooper underutilizes Benedict Cumberbatch as Bulger’s ambivalent brother, who the world class actor plays with a delightful Boston accent and Kennedy-like mannerisms. A glimpse of chemistry between him and Depp exists as Cumberbatch faces balancing loyalties as a member of the Massachusetts senate and loyalties to his brother. Cooper misses a chance to explore the link of organized crime and local government of the Bulger brothers’ relationship.

Since the early 90s, Johnny Depp garnered a reputation as one of Hollywood’s most versatile, striking talents, and is well-known for conducting meticulous research on his characters. Now 52 and shielding himself from accusations of going over the hill, he’s had enough critical failures (The Lone Ranger, Transcendence) and box-office bombs (The Rum Diary, Mortdecai) to make any top-tier actor like himself shudder. Black Mass is a reprieve. Depp is in stunning form, and still masterfully commands a scene or movie. It’s a shame Black Mass doesn’t do anything else to distinguish itself in the overabundant gangster genre. With the right direction, it could have been a knockout.

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