Is it possible for the good guys and the bad guys to work on the same team? Are the good guys still the good guys when that happens?
Last week at the Elgin Theatre in Toronto, Black Mass—starring Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, and Benedict Cumberbatch (among many other talents)—premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Based on Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill’s Black Mass: The True Story of an Unholy Alliance Between the FBI and the Irish Mob, the movie features Depp as James “Whitey” Bulger: a Boston-based gangster and former boss of the Winter Hill Gang who is still remembered as one of the most notorious criminals of the late 20th century.
Depp has not shied away from roles like this before as he played real-life bank robber and gangster John Dillinger in Public Enemies and real-life undercover FBI agent Joe Pistone in Donnie Brasco. What is interesting is that in the latter movie, Depp works for the FBI while undercover with the mob. In Black Mass, it’s the other way around—Bulger is a “wise guy” who is working with the FBI in order to take down rival gangs. However, Depp is lost behind the fierce, piercing eyes of Jimmy Bulger.
While staring into Bulger’s cold, unchanging gaze, I thought, “He’s got the loyalty of a wolf, he’s as slithery as a snake, he’s as quick-to-anger as a shark, and as dangerous as all three combined.”
If that story sounds familiar, it may be because Martin Scorsese loosely based his Academy Award–winning film The Departed on Bulger’s story. Moreover, Black Mass is stylized like Scorsese’s Goodfellas—with voiceovers, time-skipping, practical jokes, and end credits explaining the outcomes of the criminals—which creates a lack of originality in the new film. It’s a familiar story with a familiar plot setting.
The film continues the legacy of American mob films, as it shows the sheer, truly unbelievable ruthlessness of human nature. As many audiences have asked and continue to ask while watching mob movies, “How can they do that to someone?” In Black Mass we see FBI agents fighting the wars of the Irish mob, with Bulger not being “the feds’ informant”, but rather their “business partner”. So who are the good guys in this movie? What makes this film so great is that you don’t know who to root for. The film is on the fence, and it offers a great debate and history lesson for the late 1970s and 1980s.
Whenever Depp goes “full Johnny Depp” into a character—which he does in all of his movies—talk of his receiving Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations always arises. Will Depp receive nominations? Most likely. Will he win? Although there are many films and months left until awards season, gut instinct tells me that he may not carry the awards home once again (don’t tell him I said that, though).
Nevertheless, Black Mass is a success with its star-studded cast and intriguing plot that outlines historical events. With this movie, TIFF welcomed something familiar and made it new again. I encourage you to watch the performances of Black Mass’ leads for an entertaining and surprisingly educating experience. Or don’t. Remember, in the words of Depp’s Bulger, “If nobody sees it, it didn’t happen.”