TIFF 2015: Absorbing true-life crime thriller marking a return to form for Johnny Depp
True-life crime stories are very much in fashion this autumn. After Tom Hardy’s tour-de-force as both Kray brothers in Legend, Johnny Depp gives one of his best performances in some time as Irish-American criminal kingpin Jimmy ‘Whitey’ Bulger in Black Mass. Blue contact lenses and a balding pate lend Depp a chilling death-mask appearance, as he dons the guise of one of Boston’s most notorious gangsters during the 1970s and 1980s.
Scott Cooper’s absorbing thriller is based around key testimony delivered by members of Bulger’s Winter Hill Gang who turned informant to save their own skins. Through their eyes we learn of Bulger’s criminal empire and vicious temper in a film with the surface appeal of a Scarface or a Goodfellas.
Yet the reality is that Black Mass has more affinity with the crime pictures that James Cagney was making at Warners in the 1930s. Bulger may kill with his bare hands and show little remorse but he is also a beloved neighbourhood figure, who is kind to old ladies and a genuinely loving father.
If Depp has the Cagney role then Joel Edgerton is his Pat O’Brien as John Connolly, a fellow Boston ‘Southie’ now working as an FBI agent. Connolly persuades his superiors to 'bring Jimmy into the tent', so they might work to their mutual advantage in sweeping the Mafia from the streets. It is a bargain with the devil and the film's most interesting elements come from Connolly constantly crossing the line and disregarding the rules, as he becomes lost in admiration for the crime boss.
Moody cinematography and a brooding sense of a community in which loyalty is everything add to the appeal of this sprawling, fact-based saga. Black Mass loses momentum at times and feels very familiar in places but a strong cast – including Kevin Bacon, Peter Sarsgaard and Benedict Cumberbatch, as Whitey’s sly brother – all add substance to this nasty, fatalistic rise-and-fall.
Screening as part of the Toronto International Film Festival 2015. General release from Fri 27 Nov.