Rated: R for brutal violence, language throughout, some sexual references and brief drug use. Reviewed by: Frank Release date: September 18, 2015 Released by: Warner Brothers
Black Mass is a gangster film based on a real life character (James Whitey Bulger) it also includes references to his brother William Billy Bulger). Even though the story is one that took place recently and continues to be told as Whitey sits in jail this film is about gangsters and has similarities to Angles With Dirty Faces in which James Cagney grows up in the same atmosphere as Pat O'Brien, Cagney becomes a gangster and O'Brien becomes a priest. In real life Billy Bulger became the Senate President and lead the University of Massachusetts and is known to be cagey, smart, intelligent and respected in the roles he played. Whitey stayed outside the law and played the game with an FBI agent to protect himself.
Here we ask ourselves is Johnny Depp up to carrying out the evil presence on the screen that Cagney and DeNiro in The Untouchables and Daniel Day Lewis in The Untouchables gave to us.
Johnny Depp with significant make up has the look of Whitey that helps make him the menacing character he is painted in the film. Benedict Cumberbatch on the other hand doesn't look anything like Billy, so his performance must be based on character and acting on its own.
It's the world of Southie (part of Boston) and it reflects the ethnic loyalty of this Irish part of the city. The ethnic battles that are part of Boston politics also are shown to part of the friction and combat between the different ethnic gangs. Part of what allowed FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) to play his supervisors into protecting Whitey Bulger his childhood friend. He convinces his bosses that it is more important to get the Mafia (Italian) than the Winter Hill Gang which allows Whitey Bulger to play at any violence, extortion he wants to. He even exports weapons to the IRA in Ireland.
Depp looks like Whitey due to make up but his performance is also gritty and frightening as one who kills easily and yet is kind to a little old lady. He is also crushed when his young son dies but feels no pain when he chokes a young prostitute to death even though he is not sure she has done him wrong. The most frightening scene to watch shows Whitey running his hands up and down the hair and face of Mrs Connolly, it is creepy and scary enough to impart what we see when a malevolent alien drags its appendages over the body of a frightened human.
Cumberbatch effectively plays Billy Bulger but not all time. One thing missing is the humor of the brother who has succeeded as a political leader and the movements of his hands and body as he greets the people of South Boston.
Overall this is a strong, dark emotional look as human beings who have lost their way when lead by the kid they grew up with and who continues to be the leader of the gang. Whitey's world is the narrow one of Irish Boston but he reaches out at times to bring more power to himself in his small world. His brother on the other hand uses his skill and intellect to reach out to a far wider world.
In this story of two brothers and their friend, framed in the black place of the underworld one stands out and the other is in jail. This is not a moral play it's a film about Goodfellas but the moral high ground eventually prevails.