BFI London Film Festival: Black Mass

Black Mass
Directed by Scott Cooper
Starring Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Rory Cochrane and Jesse Plemons

by Ruth Thomson

Black Mass is another gritty tale of Boston crime lords, gang warfare, and corrupt cops: but what makes it pack such a convincing punch is the fact that the incredible story of James ‘Whitey’ Bulger of the White Hill Gang (charged with racketeering, 19 counts of murder, extortion, narcotics distribution, money laundering, and shoplifting) and his brother Billy (esteemed politician and longest running President of the Massachusetts Senate) is true. That and Johnny Depp’s eyeliner and creepy coloured contact lens combo. Depp as Whitey conveys rare moments of tenderness to his mother, brother and young son, but largely is a swaggering psychotic, ready to snap murderously at any moment – director Scott Cooper (hats off, it’s only his third film) describes him as a cobra, and you can certainly see the similarities as he slithers threateningly around the wife of (increasingly corrupt) FBI agent John Connolly.

Whilst Depp’s is a hearty leading man performance (take note Ben Foster of The Program) the real stand out is Joel Edgerton as Connolly – the childhood friend of the Bulger brothers who initially offers Whitey protection in exchange for information about the rival Italian mafia at work in the city. As his involvement with Whitey increases, the noose around his own neck tightens. The real Connolly is currently serving 40 years for second degree murder. Edgerton’s performance is strangely heart-breaking as he progresses from idealistic youth to ultimately being part of the White Hill Gang, totally unable to overcome the loyalty and need for approval that has hung over him since childhood. Benedict Cumberbatch as Depp/Whitey’s brother Billy (yes really!) does a respectable job with his Boston accent, but the relationship at the heart of the film is entirely Whitey and John’s.

The film was shot almost entirely in all of the original locations of the true crimes – two of the henchmen portrayed in the film were on the set (having received shorter sentences, despite all those murders, for testifying against the main man) and a heavy sense of authenticity hangs over everything as a result. Locals who remember, and in some cases revere, the real Whitey were apparently stunned by the accuracy of Depp’s performance – quite something given that eye make-up which must have raised a few eyebrows on the mean streets of Boston. Terrific performances all round: just prepare yourselves for some extensive googling when you get home to discover what happened to the real Whitey…


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