‘Black Mass,’ the “true story" of the rise and subsequent fall of south Boston Irish mob boss and “Winter Hill Gang” leader James “Whitey” Bulger, is the latest movie starring Johnny Depp, who needed a hit after such recent misfires as ‘Transcendence’ and ‘Mortdecai.’ In portraying the notorious kingpin whose role as an FBI informant to help bring down the Italian mafia in the ‘70s and ‘80s later scandalized the Bureau, Depp delivered what may well be one of his best method acting performances to date.
Deathly pale, gaunt and sunken-cheeked with slicked back hair (and a receding hairline), Depp’s Whitey Bulger resembles something between the Grim Reaper and LOTR’s Gollum. The Grim Reaper simile isn’t far off, because behind his calm façade is a ruthless and cold-blooded killer, a calculating fox (or wolf) who perfected the art of making one feel at ease and lower his guard before putting a bullet in his head. ‘Black Mass’ is the tale of how the FBI, through one of its agents (John Connolly, a childhood friend of Whitey’s), practically gave Bulger free rein in his criminal activities while doing him the favor of eliminating the Angiulo Brothers, his main competitors of the Italian mafia.
With a stellar cast including Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch and Kevin Bacon plus a fine screenplay from Jez Butterworth and Mark Mallouk based on a non-fiction book by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill, BM not only makes for a fascinating character study but also a compelling gangster film in the best traditions of ‘The Godfather,’ ‘Scarface’ and ‘Goodfellas.’