There are some stories that just seem so unbelievable, they can't possibly be true. The saga of James "Whitey" Bulger is such a story, and it serves as the basis for Black Mass. Bulger (Johnny Depp) was the leader of a criminal organization in the 1970s and 1980s known as the Winter Hill Gang, semi-prominent in Boston. FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgarton), a childhood friend of Bulger's younger brother, state senator Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch), enlists Bulger to become an informant, ostensibly to assist the FBI in bringing down the Italian mob. However, Bulger ramps up his operation, leading to a deadly siege of the city for nearly a decade with Connolly protecting him from prosecution the whole way. It's the kind of story that really tests the veracity of "the enemy of my enemy is my friend."
Director Scott Cooper, working from a script by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth and adapted from the nonfiction book Black Mass: Whitey Bulger, the FBI, and a Devil's Deal, keeps the film focused on the years between Bulger becoming an informant and his eventual flight from Boston once his FBI protection came to an end. As such, the film has a bit of an episodic feel, but keeps things at a low-enough simmer to create a connective tissue of violence both physical and emotional. This is Cooper's best effort to date; though his previous films, Crazy Heart (2009) and Out of the Furnace (2013), proved that he could elicit great performances from his actors, he's never shown much visual flair. Black Mass isn't exactly a beautiful film, but the low-key lighting and washed-out color (courtesy director of photography Masanobu Takayanagi) give the film a period feel, as if we're watching a gangster film from the late 1970s. Similarly, the film employs a framing device around the main narrative: Bulger's accomplices, speaking to an FBI agent during their depositions with the promise of a lesser sentence if they talk. It could have been cheesy or cheap, but it's effectively used, never intruding into the narrative and providing some surprising emotional context (Rory Cochrane, as Bulger's right-hand man Steve Flemmi, absolutely slays in a crucial moment).
And, of course, the main draw here is the actors. Cooper amassed an impressive ensemble for his film - in addition to the previously-mentioned actors, the cast also includes Jesse Plemmons, Peter Sarsgaard, Kevin Bacon, Corey Stoll, Dakota Johnson, Julianne Nicholson, Adam Scott, and David Harbour. Granted, not everyone is given significant screen time: Stoll and Bacon hardly make much of an impression in their "stern authoritarian" positions as bureau chiefs, though Johnson and Nicholson at least get one big moment each as the wives of Bulger and Connolly, respectively. Cumberbatch is convincingly Bostonian, and Edgarton is excellent as the cocksure Connolly, giving shades of loyalty to his old neighborhood friends without tipping into cliche.
It's Depp, of course, that the film truly belongs to. He isn't necessarily moving away from the "make-up acting" that's defined his career over the past decade: as Whitey, he disappears behind a sickly pallor, receding hairline, and bulging, bloodshot blue eyes that make him look positively demonic. But what's refreshing is that, for the first time in ages, Depp gives a performance that he's actually invested in, turning Bulger into a violent specter that haunts the streets of Boston with menace. He commands the screen, never once letting us forget what kind of monster he truly is. The film's best scene - the dinner table meeting with Bulger's crew and Connolly's agents - was spoiled in the trailer, but it's a testament to Depp's powerhouse performance. Even when he's offscreen, his presence is felt. It's been a long time since we've seen him be this good. Luckily, Black Mass gave him an opportunity to truly act again. B+