The rise and fall story of notorious gangster Whitey Bulger is one Hollywood has been eyeing off for quite some time, but ongoing legal concerns and proximity to real life events have frequently prevented it from getting off the ground. Now, with the final court cases all but wrapped up, director Scott Cooper and star Johnny Depp have taken on the task of adapting Bulger’s story for the big screen, with Black Mass.

So, is it any good?


The majority of Black Mass is told through the eyes of the men who made up Bulger’s infamous crew, the Winter Hill Gang, and carried out all manner of unspeakable acts on the streets of South Boston during the 70s and 80s. Now interviewed years later by investigators in exchange for various plea bargains, the men gradually expose the full breadth of Bulger’s corrupt FBI links and criminal activities through dramatic flashbacks. The man himself is never cross examined in this fashion, but over the course of the film we see his actions unfold firsthand, in often graphic detail.

maxresdefault (1)The problem with Black Mass is the over familiarity of the material, and a lot of that has to do with the similarities it shares with a certain other Boston set crime drama. The shadow of The Departed looms large over the film, mostly due to the fact Scorsese borrowed heavily from the Whitey Bulger story when transplanting the Chinese set Infernal Affairs to the streets of Boston for his 2009 Oscar winner. As a result of this, many story beats feel predictable, or simply lack the intended shock value.

The real reason to see this film is for the performances; and specifically the man who is front and centre. Hidden under layers of prosthetics, contact lenses, and speaking with a thick, weathered Boston accent, Johnny Depp is a fearsome screen presence as Bulger, instantly elevating every scene in which he appears. Having already played John Dillinger, it’s clear he relishes playing criminal psychopaths, and boy does he have fun with the dark material he’s been given here. Featuring just the right amount of unhinged menace without ever tipping into the realm of caricature, it’s easily his best performance since the first Pirates of the Caribbean.

black-mass-johnny-depp1Depp is more than ably supported by a cracking supporting cast that includes the ever reliable Joel Edgerton, the always present Benedict Cumberbatch, and the seemingly never-aging Kevin Bacon. Less well served are the female contingent of the supporting cast, with both Dakota Johnson and Julianne Nicholson relegated to thankless doting wife roles, disappointing given the wealth of material given to the men.

Black Mass is a stark, gritty and undeniably well-made film that unfortunately doesn’t add a hell of a lot to the crime genre. But what it lacks in originality, it more than makes up for with the calibre of its ensemble cast, and in particular Johnny Depp’s towering central performance. You won’t be able to take your eyes off his freaky eyes.

black-mass-johnny-deppBLACK MASS is released in Australian cinemas this Thursday, October 8th.