After premiering to strong reaction at both the Venice and Telluride film festivals, the new Warner Bros crime drama Black Mass is headed to the Toronto Film Festival later this week before opening wide September 18. In the tradition of mob movies like Goodfellas and of course the granddaddy of them all The Godfather (Part I and Part II), director Scott Cooper’s take on the notorious mobster James “Whitey” Bulger who ruled South Boston in the 1970s is a sterling addition to the well-worn genre, which gets a fresh dose of adrenaline here. In fact, Warners is the perfect studio for it as it recalls also those powerful and entertaining gangster movies the studio turned out in the ’30 and ’40s with iconic performances from the likes of James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart and Edward G. Robinson.
As I say in my video review (click the link above), in this case Cooper is blessed to have cast Johnny Depp, again almost totally unrecognizable as Bulger (check out those teeth, eyes and hair!), but really getting to the essence of this evil, precise, cold-blooded mobster. However, where it really goes right is in also giving us a human side of someone who, on the surface, would not seem to have one. What I loved about this movie is that Cooper and his screenwriters Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth (adapting the book by Dick Lehr and Gerald O’Neill) have created a three-dimension portrait of a man who is more complex than you might think. In fact, Cooper said at a Telluride Q&A over the weekend, it easily could have been an eight-hour Netflix miniseries and beyond.
The main focus here is on the unholy alliance formed between FBI agent John Connolly (an excellent Joel Edgerton) and Bulger, who at his urging turned informant against their mutual enemy, the Italian mob. This quickly spirals out of control as Connolly is in way over his head, and Bulger becomes even more powerful as the man who ruled the mob in South Boston at the time. It gets more complex from there, but the film is always riveting and fascinating to watch. Violent yes, but not overly so. Cooper knows he has a great story to tell so he doesn’t allow the bloodletting to overpower it.
The cast is exceptional led by Depp, who dives into this role with no strings attached. Look for an Oscar nomination for him as well as Edgerton, the Australian actor who plays Connolly with a great, nervous edge. Benedict Cumberbatch is Billy Bulger, Whitey’s powerful politician brother who is on the opposite side of the law as a state senator. In fact I would have liked to see more of this dynamic between the two, but it is underplayed. It could be a movie unto itself. Also excellent is Rory Cochrane as Bulger’s partner in crime and Jesse Plemons as another “associate.” Kevin Bacon turns up in a few scenes as the FBI agent in charge of the operation. Female roles are well cast too with a fine Dakota Johnson, touching in a hospital scene with ex-husband Bulger as they show angst over the grave illness of their young son. Julianne Nicholson, as Connolly’s wife , is superb in the scenes she has as well.
It is always the mark of a great movie when the credits roll and you want more. Bulger’s later years hiding in plain sight are not really touched upon, but that aspect also could make a great character-driven movie one day. At any rate, what we have here is undeniably one of the year’s best. Producers are John Lesher, Brian Oliver, Cooper, Patrick McCormick and Tyler Thompson. Cross Creek Pictures and RatPac-Dune Entertainment are the key production companies.
Do you plan to see Black Mass? Let us know what you think.