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Based on the true story of one of the most notorious gangsters in U.S. history, Black Mass is a chilling portrayal Irish-American mobster, James “Whitey” Bulger, his Winter Hill Gang and the havoc they wreaked on South Boston throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s before he was finally toppled from his illicit throne. The film derives its name from the unholy alliance forged between Whitey, depicted in an intensely dark performance by the illustrious Johnny Depp, and FBI agent, and long-time Bulger family friend, John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) in order to eliminate the Mafia gang who are encroaching on Whitey’s turf. Desperate times call for desperate measures. The times soon improve for witty Whitey though. In return for acting as FBI informant, he is guaranteed immunity and it isn’t long before the alliance is working solely to Whitey’s advantage as he is left free to pillage South Boston, with no one to rein him in. The bulk of the film now centres concurrently on Whitey’s ascent from small-time gangster to underworld kingpin and Connolly’s descent into a moral abyss, confirming that indeed all that is needed for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.
Scott Cooper’s gritty screen adaptation of the 2001 novel of the same title by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill, is loaded with tense scenes, none more so than when Depp is front and centre. Evidently, the Cooper/Depp alliance is a blessed union to be sure. The Hollywood legend, tipped to receive his fourth Oscar nomination for the role, delivers a nerve-jangling performance, switching from a loving father who places a damp cloth on his ill son’s forehead to a cold-blooded killer who viciously kills those who dare to cross him without batting an eyelid. Any hint of humanity that Whitey must have once possessed (indeed we are reminded that once upon a time Whitey and his gang were children just playing cops and robbers on the playground) is smothered when first his son and then his mother pass away. The man now wholly becomes the monster.
Reinforcing the film’s intensity is its superb score which would not be out of place in a horror film, and is guaranteed to keep audiences on the edge of their seats throughout. Furthermore, the star-studded cast all take to their roles with aplomb, with Kevin Bacon as FBI Agent Charles Maguire and Benedict Cumberbatch playing Whitey’s brother Billy, a state senator no less. Black Mass, with its gritty depiction of the violence, drug addiction and moral squalor of the criminal underworld, not only portrays the life and crimes of Whitey Bulger, but in doing so evokes a powerful social commentary, examining the insidious nature of crime and showing that ultimately crime most certainly does not pay.