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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » Black Mass (Blu-ray)
Black Mass (Blu-ray)
Warner Bros. // R // February 16, 2016 // Region A
List Price: $35.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by William Harrison | posted February 13, 2016 | E-mail the Author
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Highly Recommended
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Director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart) draws an intense and effectively off-putting performance out of Johnny Depp, who portrays James "Whitey" Bulger, in this adaptation of Dick Lehr and Gerard O'Neill's book. Black Mass captures a sliver of Bulger's life, beginning in 1975 when Bulger runs the Winter Hill Gang in South Boston. Depp becomes Bulger through expert performance and effective make-up effects, and Benedict Cumberbatch, as Billy Bulger, Whitey's Massachusetts senator brother, fares well in a supporting role. Joel Edgerton plays FBI agent John Connolly, a childhood friend of the Bulgers who forms an uneasy alliance with Whitey to take down a common enemy: the Italian mafia. It is Connolly whose resolve is tested the most, and Black Mass is as much about the lawman as it is the criminal. The film should have further explored the relationship between the Bulger brothers, but is an overall compelling drama with a great performance from Depp.

One of my few quibbles with Black Mass is the way it introduces the characters. The film begins with scenes focusing on Kevin Weeks (Jessie Plemons), a local hood that catches Whitey's eye when he stands up for himself in an unfair fight. The film cuts back and forth in time to Weeks' later interrogation about Whitey. He also serves as the initial narrator, but, after 20 minutes or so, fades completely into the background. Perhaps Cooper intended to structure his film differently in an earlier draft, but the initial emphasis and subsequent shift in focus away from this character is strange. Whitey is quickly shown to be ruthless with those who cross him. He is also a Robin Hood figure of sorts in South Boston, walking little old ladies home and protecting the locals. There is a reason many longtime residents in the area have an overall positive opinion of Bulger despite his multiple murder convictions.

Edgerton's Connolly comes back to the area after several years working elsewhere, and first approaches Billy Bulger, who feigns ignorance about any of his brother's wrongdoings, for assistance. Connolly is tasked with uprooting the Italian mafia, and, much to the chagrin of his boss, Charles McGuire (Kevin Bacon), wants to use Bulger's intelligence to wipe out a common enemy. Whitey is reluctant to help, and quickly informs Connolly that their childhood bond cannot turn him into a rat for the U.S. government. Whitey has a strong code of ethics and loyalty, and is particularly incensed by the Italians' presence in South Boston. Honor among thieves is a recurring theme in Black Mass. Ultimately, the promise of protection for his operations and family causes Whitey to begin working with Connolly.

The film does not explore much in Whitey's past, which is somewhat of a missed opportunity. It does a nice job of summarizing the present, from Whitey's tragic relationship with Lindsey Cyr (Dakota Johnson) to the death of his young son, Douglas (Luke Ryan). I wish Black Mass had spent more time focusing on the contrast between Whitey and Billy's career paths, but that is not the story Cooper wants to tell. It is almost unbelievable that the brother of a legendary crime boss could have a decades-long career in politics and serve as president of the University of Massachusetts, a post Billy was forced to resign in 2003 after refusing to testify against Whitey during a Congressional hearing. The film instead remains focused on Whitey and Connolly's dealings, the fruits of which are later denounced by McGuire at the FBI.

The film has occasional bursts of startling, bloody violence. Whitey is calculating and unforgiving. A man is shot in the head at the behest of Whitey, who later tells an associate that the man's drunken insults were the final straw in a long-contemplated murder. Depp's entire demeanor is chilly and unsettling. From the piercing blue eyes to the quiet menace, Whitey is an uncomfortable presence in any room. In one powerful scene, Whitey chastises Connolly's co-worker, John Morris (David Harbour), for revealing a family recipe before teasing a sexual assault on Connolly's terrified wife (Julianne Nicholson). Whitey does not tolerate loose ends, like the loose-lipped hooker (Juno Temple) he forces an associate to get rid of. Black Mass sees many doing evil at Bulger's request, but Whitey himself kills at will and in broad daylight.

By the time the credits roll, Whitey Bulger has left South Boston and a broken Connolly in his wake. Headlines reveal that the FBI captured Bulger in 2011 after more than two decades on the run. It is an unceremonious, deserved ending for a brutal murderer. I enjoyed the strong work from Depp here, particularly given the last few years of underwhelming performances from the actor. Cooper again proves capable at directing a story without a real hero. Even without a defined protagonist, the film is never bogged down in its violent subject matter. Black Mass is expertly acted and involving, and is certainly recommended.



The 2.40:1/1080p/AVC-encoded transfer from Warner Brothers is as polished and impressive as you would expect from a new HD release. Shot on film, Black Mass appears wonderfully life-like and fluid, with light, resolved grain and excellent clarity. Skin tones are accurate and colors appropriately saturated. Cooper gives Black Mass a subdued color palette, but there is plenty of fine-object detail and texture to impress throughout the film. Close-ups reveal Depp's intricate, impressive make-up and unnaturally blue eyes, and wide shots are deep and without compression artifacts. Sharpness is strong throughout, and I noticed no issues with digital sharpening. Blacks are dark and stable, and shadow detail is usually excellent.


The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack replicates the theatrical experience. Dialogue is clear and without distortion or flaw, and frequent ambient effects like rain, crowd noise and outdoor sounds make for an immersive experience. When violence rears its ugly head, the track comes alive and opens up across the sound field. Sound pans are impressive, as is the LFE response. The film's score and period musical selections are well integrated and appropriately layered. French, Spanish and Portuguese 5.1 Dolby Digital dubs and a descriptive audio track are available, as are English SDH, Spanish, French and Portuguese subtitles.


This two-disc "combo pack" includes the Blu-ray, a DVD copy and a code to redeem an UltraViolet HD digital copy. The discs are packed into an eco-case, which is wrapped with a flat slipcover. I rarely enjoy supplemental features these days, but the Blu-ray release of Black Mass includes a nice assortment of bonus content: Deepest Cover, Darkest Crime (23:00/HD) serves as the film's making-of documentary and includes interviews from Depp, Cooper, Cumberbatch, O'Neill, Lehr and others. This piece features some nice behind-the-scenes footage, and the actors provide succinct, enlightening comments. Johnny Depp: Becoming Whitey Bulger (12:24/HD) details the actor's transformation into the crime boss, and discusses Depp's research for the role. The Manhunt for Whitey Bulger (1:01:38/HD) is a very worthy addition. Clocking in at just over an hour, this piece provides some nice backstory on the Bulger saga and fills in some of the gaps left by the film. Various law enforcement officers discuss their work on the case. It is particularly interesting to learn how Bulger evaded capture for more than 20 years.


Johnny Depp gives his best performance in years as legendary crime boss Whitey Bulger in Scott Cooper's Black Mass, which captures the sliver of Bulger's life where he aligned with FBI agent John Connolly to take down the Italian mafia in South Boston. The story is consistently engaging, and is complemented by excellent performances across the board. The Blu-ray looks and sounds great, and includes a set of better-than-expected supplements. Highly Recommended.

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William lives in Burlington, North Carolina, and looks forward to a Friday-afternoon matinee.

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