Johnny Depp is chillingly good as Boston crime lord 'Whitey' Bulger

“Black Mass” plays like a really good cover of a classic.

The film isn’t trying to be anything more than another entry in the gangster crime canon, a drug lord biopic at that, and it succeeds. 

The film tells the story of infamous Boston criminal James “Whitey” Bulger. 

Johnny Depp, in his best role in years, presents the head of the Irish-American Winter Hill Gang that rose to Boston underworld dominance from 1975 to 1995 by leveraging a long-term “alliance” with the FBI to further dominate territory and take the action beyond state lines.

It’s a familiar story with all its executions, double-crossing, and deep-seeded corruption, but is livened up by a fantastic ensemble cast and a script that isn’t too concerned with abiding by conventions. 

“Black Mass” is a performance movie through and through. While Depp’s exaggerated transformation into the character reeks of a make-up-and-wig performance on surface level, there’s more to it than that. Depp is genuinely great here and actually gives it his all for in his best role in years.

His performance is understated and fairly low-key. His presence on screen is commanding — there are a few scenes so chilling that you’ll still be thinking about them hours later. He’s a terrifying force that can turn excessively violent on a dime, and nobody in his crosshairs is safe.

The supporting cast is just as worthy of praise. Joel Edgerton in particular is terrific as an FBI agent caught between doing his job and maintaining his childhood kinship, and Corey Stoll’s brief-but-memorable turn as a federal prosecutor is a joy to watch as well. Peter Sarsgaard and Kevin Bacon are also flawless in their roles as a coke-fuelled Miami hustler and a FBI manager, respectively.

“Black Mass” does work against type and takes steps to ensure it doesn’t fall too firmly into overly-familiar territory. While it can’t escape comparisons “The Departed” or [insert any other gangster film here], it never falls victim to the “biopic problem” of trying to cram too much of Bulger’s rise-and-fall into the story.

Its composition, while seemingly haphazard, streamlines the important details so you never truly feel its 2-hour running time.

Still, it’s far from perfect. The flashback structure — a cheap and overused narrative device — gives the filmmakers some breathing room, but also compromises the flow of the narrative. There’s no getting around the fact that the jumps in time are jarring both tonally and thematically, but they’re forgivable in context as the scenes that follow are always compelling. 

“Black Mass” may not completely live up to the genre staples, but it’s a solid true-crime flick elevated by its horde of unforgettable performances. 

Watch the trailer below.

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