Johnny Depp is the star attraction of “Black Mass,” a major entry in the 40th annual Toronto International Film Festival. Now also released, the violent crime film is built around the true story of criminal James J. “Whitey” Bulger, who terrorized Boston, was unmasked as an F.B.I. informer, fled, hid, was eventually captured and is now doing life in prison. The film, directed by Scott Cooper, also shows the abetting of Bolger in his murderous activities by an F.B.I. agent and the exposé of what was happening by the Boston Globe. Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill of the Globe wrote the book on which Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth based their screenplay.
Depp’s cold-blooded performance as Bulger is menacingly effective. His icy stares, his sudden psychotic outbursts and the deadly look he brings to the character are memorable. Whether he is meting out revenge, coldly dispatching a rival, strangling a hooker with his hands or scaring the daylights out of an accomplice, Depp as Bulger commands the screen and eerie make-up completes the job.
Benedict Cumberbatch manages a Boston accent and cool personality as Whitey’s brother Billy, an important state senator. Joel Edgerton is flamboyant as F.B.I. agent Connolly, who allows Bulger (they were boyhood pals) to run rampant with his criminal gang with the excuse of being after higher-ups. This abetting of Bulger, used by the F.B.I. while committing murders, proved particularly immoral.
The action in the 1970s and 1980s is consistently chilling and often disturbing. The film is structured around a confession of a mobster who is important because of having seen Bolger personally kill and the inside information he can provide.
“Black Mass” can be placed in the category of a classic gangster film, but it also is important for showing the power of investigating journalists to come up with stories that are dynamite. Director Cooper and the screenwriters do not flinch in presenting the horrific deeds that Bulger and his cronies commit.
They also convey a feeling of life in a part of Boston rife with crime. Supporting cast members are vivid in the portrayal of the character assortment on both sides of the law. Of course, there have been memorable major gangster sagas, some superior, but “Black Mass” more than holds its own in the genre and once again proves that real stories can be more outrageous than fiction. A Warner Bros. Pictures release. Reviewed September 18, 2015.