Black Mass

Johnny Depp in Black Mass (NuMetro)
Johnny Depp in Black Mass (NuMetro)

What it's about:

The true story of Jimmy “Whitey” Bulger, a small-time Boston gangster, who, by working with the FBI to take down Boston's major crime family, soon finds himself with free rein to become the most ruthless, most feared criminal in the city.

What we thought:

Black Mass is a gangster movie that can perhaps be admired for how utterly unglamorously it portrays the casually violent gangster lifestyle (which makes for a particularly interesting contrast with Legend, the upcoming portrayal of the infamous Kray brothers) but it's a very hard to film to be invested in, let alone actually enjoy.  

Everything from the beige-and-tweed '70s fashion to the slow, downbeat direction to the utterly humourless script, adds up to an incredibly dour portrait of some of most spectacularly unlikable and unsympathetic low-life scum to hit our screen in quite some time. Director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart, Out of the Furnace) does an admirable job of sticking to his guns; never conceding an inch to mainstream Hollywood tastes – but is that enough to add up to a film that's actually worth sitting through?

Even if it is hard to deny the integrity of the piece, it's equally hard to really recommend it as a piece of cinema, as it's story is fairly rote (if true), its characters ones-dimensional and it offers very little that we haven't seen done better before. At least, that would be so if not for one, utterly inescapable factor: Johnny Depp.

While, at its worst, the rest of the film feels like a rehash of far better gangster movies: lacking the required humour, nuance, style or sheer entertainment value to come remotely close to holding up to the likes of the Godfather, Goodfellas or even Carlito's Way, Johnny Depp's terrifying, if undoubtedly one-note, performance is a mesmerising reminder of how good the man was before Captain Jack Sparrow came along and ruined things.

Depp was admittedly pretty great the first time he donned Captain Jack's silly pirate costume as he acted as a loose cannon in what was otherwise a bloated and fairly ordinary pirate movie but between the dire sequels and his misjudged insistence on applying the same tone to all of his more showy roles since then (see the lackluster stuff he did with Tim Burton over this time period and the ghastly-beyond-words Mortdecai), the once-brilliant actor has been off his game far more years than I dare to count.

While Whitey Bulger doesn't exactly give Depp much to work with in terms of shade and subtlety – Whitey is shown to be nothing more and nothing less than an irredeemably awful, psychopathic monster – he does give him the chance to shake off the fey, camp eccentricities of a decade's worth of increasingly obnoxious performances for something far more substantial.

The excellent make-up job that makes Whitey look as ugly outside as in, undoubtedly adds to the overall effect but there's also no doubt that it is Depp himself who is mostly responsible for just how scary this character is. Oozing threat and barely contained rage, Depp is a force of visceral terror that doesn't just scare the bejeesus out of every other character on screen (made of a very good, if totally overshadowed cast that includes Benedict Cumberbatch and Joel Edgerton) but of the audience as well. It's edge-of-your-seat stuff that elevates everything around it.

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