Johnny Depp is good in Black Mass. Like scary good. The kind of scary that causes viewers to crawl farther back in their seats, lest he reaches out and strangles you too with a strand of rope as thick as a femur. The rest would then be left for the rodents in a soiled fruit cellar.
In Depp and director Scott Cooper’s hands, infamous Bostonian gangster Whitey Bulger has become that certain type of big screen mobster who’s tailor-made for movie stars, right down to the Warner Bros. logo. And getting to inhabit all that internalized violence and brutality has quickened Johnny Depp awake for his first memorable performance in about a decade.
To be sure, the star turn here is a showstopper that the rest of the movie plays restrained consigliere next to with the hopes of keeping up.
For those who missed the decades of headlines, Jimmy “Whitey” Bulger was one of the biggest crime lords that the city of Boston ever saw. He ran the rackets in gambling, prostitution, loan sharking, and the more than occasional murder. He even introduced dope to his childhood neighborhood of Southie. How’s that for hometown pride?
During all of this, Whitey was also an FBI informant for going on 20 years. From 1975 to 1995, Bulger seemed to run his FBI handler John Connolly (they grew up together in the neighborhood) almost as well as he led his Winter Hill crew from small time thugs to the largest of criminal empires. These things tend to happen when you’re giving up all your competition to the Feds.
Black Mass chronicles this via flashback from the very top: all the members of Jimmy’s crew, who were left holding the bag after he skipped town, recall Bulger’s rise to prominence just as it is mirrored in the film’s less successful scenes of Connolly (Joel Edgerton) leading the FBI by the nose as he increasingly helps Bulger just as much as himself. At first, he is simply protecting Bulger by only giving up scraps of intel on the Italian Mafia in Boston, but soon he is returning the favor by handing over would-be FBI and DEA sources to a mobster. Guess what happens to them.
The unholy strength for this Black Mass sermon is that everyone’s a rat. Obviously, Bulger is the biggest rat of them all since the movie is framed around his duplicity, but there is no honor among any thieves found here. By telling the story through flashback, everyone still breathing, even within the Bureau, is just as loose-lipped and self-serving as Bulger. I’m not sure there is even a decent person in the lot of them, save for perhaps Fred Wyshak (Corey Stoll), a boy scout prosecutor who enters the picture late and is flabbergasted that in two decades, the official FBI file on Bulger is that he’s clean.
Ultimately, it’s all so filthy that Cooper paints a decidedly unglamorous view of organized crime. There are no trips to the Copacabana in this one. Just Depp’s demonic stare and one more betrayal and brutal execution after the next. In comparison to all the many mob movies that at least try to explain the seduction of the lifestyle, Black Mass is all business. And that business is a blood bath. It’s also unrelenting.
Cooper cuts his focus on the greatest hits (often literally) of Bulger’s criminal career with the sharpness of piano wire, but as a result it can feel somewhat constrictive. Essentially pacing this film like a traditional biopic that follows Bulger over the years, the narrative is not that different from watching Johnny Cash find inspiration for one song after another, except Jimmy’s smashes always end with someone getting buried deep in the earth. As a result, Black Mass often feels truncated in its series of violent vignettes and episodic events. The film doesn’t so much build to the collapse of Bulger’s empire as revisits some of its most colorful moments.
Consequently, the film’s passage of time almost seems an abstract thought as important relationships in Bulger’s life, such as that with his six-year-old son and common law wife (Dakota Johnson), flash by like parentheticals, as opposed to driving influences. This is most especially unfortunate since the film holds back on its most intriguing relationship: the one between Jimmy and his younger brother William “Billy” Bulger (Benedict Cumberbatch), who despite being the sibling of a known crime lord still rises in the Massachusetts state senate as a powerful Democrat, even becoming president of the legislative body. Hey, it’s Boston.
One imagines that relationship would have been more thoroughly explored if such a fraternity was fictional, and not constrained by a very real legal world. Who we do spend a lot of time with is John Connolly. Edgerton, who was terrific both onscreen and off in his own directorial effort, The Gift, is adequately slimy and hunched over as the handler who got handled. But as presented by either the direction or Mark Mallouk and or Jez Butterworth’s screenplay, there is something perhaps too comically ineffectual about the FBI. While there is a story to be told about the people that gave Whitey Bulger carte blanche in Boston, even after he was offing witnesses they talked to, the end result feels akin to what the onscreen characters feared: the Keystone Cops. Except, you know, with a lot more four-letter words.
For all its methodology, Cooper’s movie still doesn’t quite highlight this dirty relationship as satisfyingly as some wholly fictional films inspired by the real-life Bulger, including Martin Scorsese’s The Departed.
Still, the power of Black Mass is that it hits you so hard that you’re likely to still be drooped toward the floor after it’s over. This is a movie that painstakingly follows the career of a real-life monster by turning him into a Hollywood one with a stunningly bare-knuckled performance by Depp. The sum of these parts may not be an awards contender, but Depp should be after knocking moviegoers senseless.