Crime, law, politics, family — most grand stories in American cinema draw from at least one of these reservoirs. The story of James "Whitey" Bulger draws from all four. Director Scott Cooper's epic, thrilling rendering of Bulger's life contains everything audiences love about gangster movies. And in Johnny Depp, Cooper has a leading man with the range, the charisma, and the iconic stature required to portray this extraordinary figure. Black Mass is a blast to watch.
Based on the book by Dick Lehr and Gerard O'Neill, the film establishes the tough, clannish world of South Boston in the 1970s. Bulger is the black sheep of a poor Irish-American family. His brother Bill (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a state senator, and their childhood friend John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) has grown up to become an FBI agent, while Whitey goes in and out of prison. But Whitey Bulger is not simply a ruthless street criminal; he's also a cunning strategist. Guided by the philosophy of his favourite author, Machiavelli, Bulger constantly marshals the forces of his FBI friend and senator brother to protect his drugs-and-extortion business. If he has to kill those who get in his way, so be it. He'll still be home for Sunday dinner.
With a perfect eye for period detail, Cooper delivers the exciting rush and suspenseful set pieces of a great crime thriller. But it's the human drama that gives this film its heart. Every scene is lit up with energy, courtesy of a cast that includes Dakota Johnson, Kevin Bacon, Peter Sarsgaard, and Corey Stoll. At the centre of it all stands one of the finest actors of his generation. Johnny Depp owns Black Mass, and it's a pleasure to behold.