“Black Mass” provides excellent performances, rich story

When going to a movie, the viewer typically has an idea where the story is going to go. When it comes to “Black Mass,” the story is real, that James “Whitey” Bulger is considered one of the most notorious gangsters in U.S. history.

The film tells the story of Bulger’s (Johnny Depp) rise from small-time crook to criminal kingpin in the city of Boston. Bulger is free to do almost whatever he wants after becoming an FBI informant for a childhood friend, John Connolly (Joel Edgerton).

Bulger, known as “Jimmy” in the film, makes it clear to Connolly that he is not a snitch, so the two form an alliance in an effort to rid the city of the Italian mob for the sake of closing an FBI investigation and Whitey’s burgeoning empire.

The story is told within the framework of testimony given by members of Bulger’s gang. While this mode of storytelling is certainly clunky, the story that gets told is not. In between this connective tissue is the rich story of loss, anger and violence.

Depp’s performance is fantastic. From the first time we meet him, he says so much without saying a word. The camera lingers on his face as he broods, shadows covering his eyes. And so it is throughout the film’s frequent close-ups that we get insight into Bulger’s mindset.

On the other end of the spectrum, we see Bulger’s humanity displayed through interactions with his young son. That boy is the one thing he truly loves. In talking to his son, Bulger reveals one of his central tenants, “If nobody sees it, didn’t happen.”

And so that is what Bulger does. He lives in the open, helping old ladies with their groceries and acting as an upstanding community man. But really, he dwells in the shadows.

On the other side of the line, Agent Connolly shows himself to be a timid man, holding Bulger in high esteem after Bulger saved him from a beating when they were kids. But as the film goes on, Connolly becomes more bold and brash in his defense and admiration of Bulger. It is an interesting dynamic and a performance that Edgerton pulls off incredibly well.

The film is peppered with great performances from other actors. Benedict Cumberbatch sports a Boston accent as a state senator and Bulger’s older brother. Kevin Bacon also excels as Connolly’s boss. One of the more underrated performances comes from Peter Sarsgaard who plays a jittery, cocaine-addicted hitman. Sarsgaard provides much needed comic relief in the middle of a dramatically heavy film.

“Black Mass” is well worth your time. It is able to overcome its minor problems to showcase stellar performances and is a great, personality-driven film. If this is where gangster movies are headed, let’s enjoy the ride.