After years of roles that led Johnny Depp into cartoonish directions that didn’t quite connect with audiences, the Pirates of the Caribbean actor returns in strong form with Black Mass. Playing real-life Boston crime lord James “Whitey” Bulger, Depp has received near-unanimous praise for his chilling performance, but can the rest of the film and its deep bench of supporting players live up to that central role?
Black Mass follows Bulger as he finds himself caught between his criminal life and acting as an FBI informant in an attempt to protect the area he claims from an invading Mafia family. Bulger is connected to the FBI by his deal struck with John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), while his brother and Massachusetts senator Billy Bulger (Benedict Cumberbatch) must reconcile his family loyalty with Bulger’s actions.
While praising Depp’s performance, EW‘s Chris Nashawaty said, “It’s a very good film about a very bad man. But as well-crafted and well-acted as it is, it never rises to greatness because we’ve been watching this story in one way or another going back to the time of Jimmy Cagney and Edward G. Robinson. Whitey may now be in good (which is to say, bad) company, but he’s still the same old monster.”
Read on for more on what Nashawaty and other critics from around the country though of Black Mass, its cast, and perhaps most importantly of all, the Boston accents.
Chris Nashawaty, Entertainment Weekly
“… Cooper’s working in a genre that’s become so familiar to us that we’re able to see most of his film’s beats coming before they arrive: the hair-trigger outbursts of violence, the whispered-threat monologues, the montages of corruption, and the double crosses that eventually tighten the noose around Connolly and send Whitey on the lam.”
Kenneth Turan, The Los Angeles Times
“Bulger shows up regularly and imparts The World According to Whitey life lessons like, ‘If nobody sees it, it didn’t happen.’ Finally, however, Bulger is a scary, menacing individual, and attempts to paint him as otherwise are doomed to failure. To see him simultaneously flirt with and threaten Connolly’s wife, Marianne (Julianne Nicholson), is to see both a nightmare in flesh and blood and one of the most indelible moments in Johnny Depp’s career.”
Peter Travers, Rolling Stone
“Is there any sympathy for the devil that is Whitey? The death of his only son, at age six, clearly rocks him, as it does the boy’s mother (a touching Dakota Johnson). But the key path into Bulger is his good brother, William “Billy” Bulger, former Massachusetts Senate president. Billy remains shrouded in mystery. Luckily, Brit acting icon Benedict Cumberbatch doesn’t need dialogue to make his character understood. Cumberbatch reveals Billy’s loyalty in the space between words.”
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Ann Hornaday, The Washington Post
“The psychological push-pull between the Bulger brothers and Connolly alone would provide Black Mass with a fascinating cat-and-mouse dynamic. Boys who once played cops and robbers on the playground, as Weeks observes, are now playing them in real life. But Cooper, working from a script by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth, keeps the story literal and linear, bouncing from a shot of Jimmy Bulger (no one in the know ever called him “Whitey”) tenderly helping an old lady with her groceries to a scene in which he casually shoots a colleague’s brains out on a deserted riverbank.”
A.O. Scott, The New York Times
“I have seen Goodfellas and the Godfather movies more times than I can count, and I’m as susceptible as any other deskbound, conflict-averse fantasist to the visceral appeal of a good gangster movie. But Black Mass isn’t one. Mr. Cooper’s direction is skillful, if overly reliant on borrowed Scorseseisms (especially when it comes to music), and the cast is first-rate, but the film is a muddle of secondhand attitudes and half-baked ideas. It feels more like a costume party than a costume drama.”
Peter Hartlaub, San Francisco Chronicle
“Scott Cooper directs Black Mass with sharpness, often filming outdoors at dusk or dawn. You can feel the chill, whether it’s a light dusting of snow that none of the characters seem dressed for, or the sudden fear of a South Boston outsider who realizes he’s in over his head. The director once again assembles a stellar crew, repeating the standout production design (Stefania Cella) and cinematography (Masanobu Takayanagi) that elevated Cooper’s Out of the Furnace.”
Ty Burr, The Boston Globe
“Black Mass gets Boston reasonably right — the brick of the North End versus the clapboards of Southie — although it gets a few things wrong as well: Since when have the FBI’s offices been located in City Hall or the Mystic River Bridge been visible from the banks of the Neponset? More problematically, the movie gives short shrift to the social canvas that’s specific to this town, that can create a Jimmy Bulger (and a Billy Bulger) in hermetically sealed enclaves of class and clan and poverty and potential.”
Wesley Morris, Grantland
“Edgerton’s physicality takes the movie. When he’s strutting and strolling around the office, or virtually floating to heaven as a cluster of agents sit in a conference room listening to a mafioso incriminate himself, or speaking in a treble accent that exists in Boston but that I’ve never heard in a movie because the degree of difficulty is high, it’s like he’s inventing some new kind of machismo. He’s a bull-cock. Who knows where he found that accent (he’s from Australia), but he’s found one of the most entertaining performances I’ve seen all year. “
Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune
“If anything, director Cooper is so intent on portraying Bulger as a man, not a monster, the man comes off a little softer than he was, probably. The dialogue occasionally enters a realm of fanciful criminalspeak straight out of Damon Runyon. (I’m paraphrasing, but at one point Bulger says to a local cop giving him grief: “It’s a sad day when a good man takes up with his oppressor.”) And yet, in scene after scene, some fine actors go to town and dive into the material gratefully.”
Joe Morgenstern, The Wall Street Journal
“Mr. Depp gives his lowlife character the subterranean voice of a Tuvan throat singer. He seems to see Bulger’s seamy world through undead eyes that simmer from the depths of parallel caves with eyebrow awnings. His portrayal is as notable for what’s withheld as for what’s revealed during murderous rages. Two of the movie’s most terrifying scenes are fueled only by menace.”
Todd McCarthy, The Hollywood Reporter
“Cooper, who previously directed Crazy Heart and Out of the Furnace after working as an actor, times and stages the violence for sharp visceral impact and street realism, avoiding operatic extremes as well as trendy fast cutting and ridiculous forms of physicality. But especially in regard to some key interior dramatic sequences, Cooper would seem to have given the Godfather films some very close re-viewings, as his typical approach is much like Coppola’s, starting with carefully composed and sometimes lengthily held master shots that are followed by unusually tight and sustained close-ups, which make the actors look really good.”