Johnny Depp gives easily his best performance of the last 5 years (possibly longer) in Black Mass, Scott Cooper’s solid take on the life of FBI informant and crime King of South Boston, Jimmy ‘Whitey’ Bulger. Based on the book of the same name by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill, Black Mass follows the period in which Whitey played the FBI for fools in order to grow his criminal empire. His unwitting aide in all this is FBI agent and childhood friend, John Connolly (Joel Edgerton).
In a film full of ‘bad guys’ it might be difficult to draw your audience along with you, but Cooper keeps us onside with the dark but well-judged tone of the piece. There is little sympathy for the characters concerned yet he manages to show Whitey as both the ‘Robin Hood’ character of his neighbourhood and the cold-blooded killer the FBI should have put behind bars.
While Whitey might be the focus of the film, in reality the best element is the Macbethian downfall of FBI good-guy, John Connolly. Convincingly portrayed with appropriate swagger and arrogance by Joel Edgerton, Connolly is the most fascinating thread of the story – from the start of the tale when he genuinely believes that he can make use of his ties to Whitey in order to clean up Southie, to his foolhardy conviction that he is absolutely in the right, which plays into his blind ambition and causes his absolute recklessness when dealing with his informant.
Only occasionally do you see Connolly realise he’s made a mess of things and these moments are almost as brilliant as the astonishing amount of male posturing that he pulls off. Peter Sarsgaard should also get a mention for his brief but brilliant portrayal of a drug-addled criminal who tries to turn Whitey in but runs into Connolly at his most defensive.
There is minimal use of contemporary music in the soundtrack but what there is suits perfectly the seedy, self-congratulatory feel of the film. In the meantime, Tom Holkenborg’s ominous string arpeggios help to underscore the continuing tensions.
With outbursts of violence juxtaposed against the more banal side of criminal behaviour, Scott Cooper keeps his audience on their toes and, with a tight screenplay from Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth, really succeeds in painting a picture of Whitey’s reign as king of South Boston.
Black Mass is out now.