After seeing Black Mass at an early Toronto International Film Festival screening on Wednesday evening, I gave the following assessment to a few colleagues: “Black Mass is like if the director of Out of the Furnace had directed The Departed.” This statement is possibly too on-the-nose because Scott Cooper, the director of Out of the Furnace, actually did direct Black Mass, an always-tense, always-brooding version of a mobster movie. While a mobster movie like Goodfellas can be secretly hilarious, Black Mass is deadly serious. But, the good news is that I like Scott Cooper and I like what he did with Johnny Depp as Boston-area Irish mob boss Whitey Bulger in Black Mass.
Oh, excuse me, Jimmy Bulger – as we learn, Bulger does not like being called “Whitey.” Bulger does not like a lot of things. While watching Depp’s performance as Bulger, I did often wonder if the real Jimmy Bulger was really this deadly serious all the time. If this movie is to be believed, every single interaction Bulger had with literally anyone could lead to death. And the thing is, this very well might be true, but I do wonder if Bulger ever just sat back and watched a baseball game with a few friends without those friends wondering if they were going to get shot in the head later the night for maybe accidentally offending Bulger. I’d like to think that Bulger had at least some joy in his life … because I have a hard time believing Depp’s version of Bulger that we see in this movie would live much past the age of 30 without having multiple heart attacks. Depp’s Jimmy Bulger does not seem like a fun person.
The biggest surprise about Black Mass is that Depp is not the main character (though, make no mistake, Depp is in this movie a lot). Black Mass actually belongs to Joel Edgerton, who plays FBI agent John Connolly. Connolly grew up with Jimmy Bulger and Jimmy’s brother, Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch), a straight arrow of a Massachusetts state senator. Connolly convinces his superiors (played by Kevin Bacon and Adam Scott) to bring in Jimmy Bulger as an informant, an agreement Bulger agrees to simply because it will help him to wipe out his competition, the Italian mob.
Edgerton’s performance as Connolly is interesting because he comes off as a dumb guy being manipulated by the smarter criminal, Bulger. But the thing is, Connolly, at least the way Edgerton portrays him, doesn’t care. Connolly gets so caught up in having Bulger as an informant that he starts to socialize with Jimmy and often overlooks Bulger’s many, MANY indiscretions in order to keep Bulger on the payroll. Connolly likes being a part of something. This is Connolly’s downfall and this is the actual story of Black Mass. We already know that Jimmy Bulger isn’t a “good guy,” but watching an otherwise honest cop get caught up in Bulger’s world is what’s actually interesting.
A lot will be made of Johnny Depp’s performance as Jimmy “Whitey” Bulger. This is deserved. I was recently looking at Depp’s filmography in an effort to find his last “great” role and wound up just giving up. I could make a case for 2011’s Rango, which is a legitimately great movie, although it’s animated so maybe that doesn’t count. Maybe The Rum Diary? Maybe? Some people seem to like 2009’s Public Enemies and 2007’s Sweeney Todd? Depp did get an Oscar nomination for the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie, but the three sequels (with another on the way) seem to have culturally watered that performance down. Looking back, I just reached 1999’s terrible The Astronaut’s Wife and I gave up again. Seriously, has it been that long?
So, yes, maybe this really is a comeback for Depp. We always think of him as a great actor, but it’s been a really long time since we’ve seen him in something as juicy as Black Mass. Again, his version of Bulger is intense, but for this movie to work, he kind of has to be. And I really do hope Depp gets a ton of accolades for this movie, because it’s good to live in a world in which Johnny Depp gives a shit (don’t forget, we saw Depp in Mortdecai just earlier this year).
But for all the deserved accolades Depp will receive, this movie really is secretly Edgerton’s. And I hope Edgerton gets the credit he deserves, too.
Mike Ryan has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York magazine. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.