The film tells the tale of James "Whitey" Bulger, brother of Massachusetts Senate President Billy Bulger and a big fish in the medium sized pond of South Boston. In just a few short years this unhinged thug went from local tough guy to the biggest name in Boston's crowded underworld scene. His rise was no accident however. Nor was it the result of a long term plan for world conquest on Bulger's part. Instead it was largely the doing of the FBI.
Drafting Bulger to be an FBI informant was the idea of one John Connelly. Connelly had known Bulger since childhood and owed some sort of street debt to him. When he became an FBI agent he used his position to keep the agency at arms length from his patron by selling him as an invaluable snitch. Since Bulger had intimate knowledge of the most arcane workings of Boston street power, Connelly argued, he could help them bring down Gennaro Angiulo, head of the Italian mob and a certified Big Target. Bulger did wind up playing a hand in Angiulo's downfall but beyond that gave up virtually nothing of value in nearly a decade on the government dole. And after Angiulo was sent to prison in the mid-80s Bulger, with the help of Connelly, stepped neatly into the power void.
While the art direction in Black Mass never seems to completely capture the time many of the characters seem perfectly drawn. The pacing is spot on and buttressed by a screenplay that acts like a kind of literary boa constrictor slowly squeezing the life out of the leads. Even if you aren't familiar with the real life events that inspired the story you can see, and more importantly feel, where this is all going from very early on.
Joel Egerton's Agent Connelly is beautifully crafted; a man who rose through the ranks when high school diplomas and a couple of connections were enough to get you 'made' in law enforcement. As time passed however his type slowly became anachronistic as more and more professionals from outside seeped into the important offices and trained a suspicious eye on these local holdovers.
Benedict Cumberbatch does a fine job as the cooly detached Senate President Billy Bulger, a man who reached the highest office he could reach in Massachusetts while still retaining a level of anonymity. Bulger wielded enormous power as Senate President yet was never subjected to the spotlight he would have had on him were he to ascend to the governor's chair. And that was fine with him.
The rest of the supporting cast hold their own with a particular shout out going to Peter Sarsgaard for his rabid portrayal of a lunatic hitman who tries to rat out Bulger only to be turned back out to the streets by Bulger's boy Connelly.
All that said the real star of Black Mass in more ways than one is Depp who digs deep and most unexpectedly pulls an acting rabbit out of his hat. His Bulger takes Jack Nicholson's Bulger-inspired performance in The Departed and clears it off the table with the back of his hand. Depp conjures dread, loathing, fear, insanity and even sympathy without so much as raising his voice or moving at more than a snails pace.
There's one scene in particular that sums up Depp's performance. Early on in the film Bulger's son becomes mortally ill and lies dying in the hospital. We see Bulger and his girlfriend, the boy's mother, sitting by a window in the hospital cafeteria. The girlfriend says she'll pull the plug on her son herself rather than see him live life as a vegetable. Depp gazes deeply into her eyes at that statement. The camera switches to a wide shot profiling the two against the window with the table between them. Depp's Bulger gently reaches across the table and takes the bereaved mother's hand. I fully expected to hear "Hey. Don't say that. It's gonna be alright." or something to that effect. Instead after gently taking hold of his girlfriends hand he growls "What the fuck did you just say?" - cue the chills down my back.
Depp's work here is one of the best acting jobs of 2015. It's great stuff and I highly recommend you take a look. The fact that he didn't even get an Oscar nomination doesn't speak well for the Academy.