“If nobody sees it, it didn’t happen.” Thankfully for Warner Bros., moviegoers did see their latest offering, Black Mass, which opened in theaters on September 18. It has had a favorable box office run so far, especially for a movie released with an R-rating well after the summer movie rush. Being a Boston native, this is a movie that hits close to home, highlighting many areas of Boston and the surrounding communities to tell the story of one of the worst criminals the United States has ever seen, James “Whitey” Bulger. For us up here in Boston, everyone has a “Whitey story”. For me, my grandfather went to Boston College with his brother, Billy (who also plays a large part in the Whitey saga), and from what I have been told it is very possible he knew Whitey as a younger man. Everyone knew him, everyone had an encounter with him at some point, and yet somehow he managed to avoid arrest for over 20 years and eventually escape for another 16 years. Black Mass tells the story of how this was possible.
Black Mass features an outstanding cast on paper. Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Kevin Bacon, Corey Stoll, Jesse Plemons, Rory Cochrane, Benedict Cumberbatch, Adam Scott, and Dakota Johnson all share the big screen. However, many of these actors and actresses play small roles, and the main focus of the film centers around the relationship between Whitey (played by Depp) and FBI Agent John Connolly (played by Edgerton). The film packs 20 years of stories into 2 hours, clearly missing many interesting storylines in favor of faster pacing. If Scorsese had made this one, we likely could have had a solid 3+ hours of storyline, but Director Scott Cooper does the best that he can in the shorter run time. However, the plot is easy to follow and we do not need to see the 20+ killings perpetrated by Whitey and the Winter Hill Gang, the numerous extortions, and the drug deals because after just a few moments the point has been taken; Whitey was not a good guy.
Depp and Edgerton are the big shining stars in this one, and the makeup and wardrobe team did an excellent job with both of them. From aging them 20 years, to maintaining proper period clothing, to transforming Depp into an unrecognizable character, they nailed it. I will not be surprised to see them on the stage at the Academy Awards. If no one tells you going in who plays Whitey Bulger, you would not guess in twenty tries. It is that good.
Depp completely absorbs the role both in look and in attitude, and gives a performance that should be a lock for a Best Actor nomination in January. Surprisingly, Edgerton is even better in his role as John Connolly, the corrupt FBI agent who worked with Whitey for so many years. Edgerton nails the Boston accent, better than anyone else in the film, and he is the most dynamic character on screen any time he enters into the frame. Jesse Plemons turns in a solid performance as Bulger associate Kevin Weeks, although for what he went through for the role (gaining a ton of weight), I would have liked for him to get more screen time. As we know from his turn on Breaking Bad, he can play evil quite well. Rory Cochrane plays Stephen Flemmi, Bulger’s right hand man, and nails the pot-bellied gangster’s mannerisms and provides a very nice accent as well.
One standout for me was Julianne Nicholson, a Boston native who plays Connolly’s wife, Marianne. Obviously, being from Boston, she nails the accent. But she also drives the film’s most powerful scene in a one-on-one encounter with Bulger in the doorway of her bedroom door, after she is upset about him being invited into her home for dinner. It is chilling, and she does an excellent job playing on her emotions and truly portraying the fear that Whitey could instill in anyone.
The lone loser in this one is Benedict Cumberbatch, in his role as Billy Bulger, Whitey’s brother, President of the Massachusetts Senate, and President of the UMass University system. Billy was always known as the “Corrupt Midget” according to the local Boston papers, and with his short and stubby frame it was a great description. Cumberbatch is simply miscast for the character. Cumberbatch stands six foot, and his tall and lanky frame looks nothing like the man he is portraying. To top it all of, the accent is terrible. Many of the actors use a very subdued accent in the film, which is more in line with real Bostonians and less like a bad stereotype, which is good. However, Cumberbatch goes way over the top and sounds as ridiculous as he looks. It seems to me that he was attached to this film to get another big, “Oscar-worthy” name on the posters, but he ends up being the biggest let down instead of being an asset.
Overall, this is a must-see for fans of true crime, history, residents of the Boston area, or anyone who wants to go see a good gangster film. It is very good, but is most likely just an outside contender for one of the ten “Best Picture” slots, and will get most of its awards consideration in the acting departments. Makeup also has a great chance at a win.
Go see it for Depp, Edgerton, and Nicholson, but try to close your eyes (and definitely your ears with that cringey accent) when Cumberbatch steps into the picture. On a scale of Boston-based movies, Black Mass falls somewhere between The Departed and The Town.