Black Mass is an apt title for this caustic tale of manipulation, racketeering and murder that centres on a collaboration of arrogance and breathtaking stupidity between the FBI and organised crime boss, James ‘Whitey’ Bulger, played here with menace and chilling intensity by Johnny Depp.
For more than a decade – until his capture in 2011 – Bulger topped the FBI’s most wanted list, which, in an ironic twist, he would probably never have achieved without the abetment of agency’s own investigators.
Opening in Boston in the 1970s, the film charts the rise of low-level gang boss Bulger, and his Winter Hill Gang, as their rackets, drug dealing and collusion of convenience with the FBI results in demise of rival Patriarca crime family and leaves a power void they are very happy to fill.
Joel Edgerton (Zero Dark Thirty) plays the FBI handler, John Connolly, who provides a safe harbour for Bulger and his crew, after recruiting the gang boss as an informer. However, blinded by his ambition and vanity, Connolly watches on, and covers for Bulger, even as the body count mounts.
The characters are well developed and are portrayed as mundane, ordinary people who are respected within the community they live – only these ordinary people control the drug trade in Boston, run prostitution rings and bookmakers and woe betide anyone who gets in their way. There are some excellent performances within the film, notably Jesse Plemons (currently in Fargo on C4), as the no nonsense, dull as dishwater muscle Kevin Weeks, Rory Cochrane (Argo) as Bulger confidante and Winter Hill lieutenant, Steve Flemmi, Benedict Cumberbatch as under utilised State Senator brother, Billy Bulger, and Edgerton as the FBI agent whose complicity and knowledge of Winter Hill activities soon leads him out of his depth.
This is not, though, a straightforward gangster flick. There is little glorification here, and it’s certainly not a sing-along ode to good ole wise guys a la Goodfellas. This is an ugly exploration of the depths that greed and arrogance are capable of taking a man. The violence is sudden and jarring and is used extremely effectively juxtaposed with the cunning of the charismatic principal characters.
Black Mass is not a film without faults but it is a very worthwhile way to spend an evening, not least to watch Depp, made barely recognisable by facial prosthetics and assumed mannerisms, take on the roll one of America’s most feared and ruthless mobsters with such ease that you’ll wonder why he ever bothered apeing up as the ridiculous buccaneer, Captain Jack Sparrow.
Black Mass Monday 9.00pm on Sky Cinema Crime & Thriller
Photo: Claire Folger – © 2014 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc