Black Mass: Johnny Depp’s Transformation into James “Whitey” Bulger is His Greatest Performance [Review]

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From director Scott Cooper (Out of The Furnace) comes the true crime story Black Mass detailing the exploits of the infamous James “Whitey” Bulger. Starring Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Jesse Plemons, Kevin Bacon, Corey Stoll, Peter Sarsgaard, Juno Temple, Dakota Johnson, Rory Cochrane and Adam Scott, the film hits theatres September 19, 2015.

While his brother Bill (Benedict Cumberbatch) remains a powerful leader in the Massachusetts Senate, Irish hoodlum James “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp) continues to pursue a life of crime in 1970s Boston. Approached by FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), the lawman convinces Whitey to help the agency fight the Italian mob. As their unholy alliance spirals out of control, Bulger increases his power and evades capture to become one of the most dangerous gangsters in U.S. history.

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Johnny Depp’s eyes. You will not be able to get those eyes out of your head after watching Depp’s portrayal of James “Whitey” Bulger. No matter how hard you try to shake it – Depp’s eyes will haunt you long after seeing Black Mass. This is Johnny Depp’s finest performance of his career and I don’t know if he’ll get an Academy Award for it but he deserves a shot. If he ever had a shot – this is the one.

Director Scott Cooper has done a terrific job here, setting up a film that is quiet, unnerving and brutal when it needs to be but never excessive. He faithfully recreates some of the most infamous moments from the real life story of how Bulger became Boston’s most notorious crime lord. I was worried that I’d be annoyed by the set pieces being set up via confession tapes long after they had occurred but it helped drive the narrative. I found myself actually missing the voice-overs when they went away later on in the movie. Jesse Plemons was brilliant – I wish they would have utilized him more later on in the film but he only helps to set the dark and gritty tone of Black Mass.

This is not a Goodfellas knockoff – no freaking way. Black Mass does not glorify it’s criminal lead. Depp portrays Bulger as a real man, both sympathetic and terrifying – usually at the flip of a switch. The dinner scene later on where Bulger talks about the steak recipe is one of the best deliveries of dialog that I’ve ever seen Depp perform. Black Mass is a slow burn at times but it never feels like it’s dragging it’s feet. Even if you know how this true story concludes (and I did) — it doesn’t matter because you’re drawn into the film by the mesmerizing performances from a star-studded cast of A-Listers.

But not a single one of them steals the spotlight from Depp. This is his movie and if I had one critique it would be that at times, I don’t think Black Mass knew which character truly was it’s main lead… At first I thought we were watching the plot develop through the eyes of Plemons, then it was Joel Edgerton’s character for the second half. I think that if Cooper had simply put the camera on Depp and let Bulger drive the narrative overall – then the film wouldn’t feel so spread thin at times. There’s an incredibly heart-breaking plotline dealing with Bulger’s son falling ill and it builds and builds only to end with a time jump and no breathing room to let his character truly suffer the consequences. I didn’t like that gap.

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But aside from the few moments where I was feeling detached from the characters, the rest of Black Mass was astounding. The kill-shots looked real, the shoot-outs were always quick, realistic and never over the top for the sake of inducing action into a ‘gangster flick’. Black Mass is not your typical mafia biopic – it’s more of a character study and it always felt more effective during the calm moments.

The true story of James “Whitey” Bulger is fascinating and truly one of the most complex and profound true crime tales in all of history. Black Mass hits on all of the major points which I’m thankful for. I’m completely entrenched in the Boston Crime World — The Departed may have taken the essence of Bulger when crafting Jack Nicholson’s character, but Depp transformed himself into that man and when he did — he put on the greatest performance of his career.

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