Film Review: Black Mass

Johnny Depp is menacing as Boston's infamous gangster-murderer-FBI informant in this fractured drama

Black Mass

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Directed by Scott Cooper. Starring Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dakota Johnson, Juno Temple, Kevin Bacon, Jesse Plemons, Peter Sarsgaard, Corey Stoll, Sienna Miller, Adam Scott, Julianne Nicholson, Rory Cochrane, W. Earl Brown, James Russo, Jeremy Strong, Jay Giannone, Owen Burke, Bates Wilder, Bill Camp, Brad Carter, David Harbour. Written by Mark Mallouk, Jez Butterworth, from the novel by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill.

A nearly unrecognizable Johnny Depp is quietly menacing as infamous Boston gangster-murderer-informant James “Whitey” Bulger in director Scott Cooper’s Black Mass, a film not so much about Bulger as it is about the system of corruption that allowed him to operate unhindered for almost two decades.

Depp is excellent as Bulger – so good you wish the movie focused more on his character. But he only gets a single standout sequence to strut his frightening stuff, which starts off as a Goodfellas/Joe Pesci “Whaddya mean I’m funny?” ruse and ends up with Bulger terrorizing the wife of his FBI handler.

He’s a character, you feel, could snap at any moment – and frequently does, during scenes where he’s all buddy-buddy with a character before violently murdering them (there’s a particularly unpleasant strangulation scene) or overseeing their deaths.

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But Black Mass doesn’t want to tell the Bulger story – and it doesn’t, leaving any semblance of backstory out of the film or to throwaway lines of dialogue. His early years, time in Alcatraz, the inner workings of his organization – all left for the viewer to fill in the blanks. 

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Instead, Cooper’s film wants to ape Sidney Lumet’s Prince of the City in exposing the kind of systemized corruption that allowed the kind of crime perpetrated by Bulger – murder, extortion, racketeering, narcotics distribution and much more – to thrive in Boston from the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s.

It’s a noble effort, but one that’s overshadowed by the Depp-as-Bulger stuff. We want more of the bad guy.

Ultimately, the bulk of the screen time in Black Mass falls to Joel Edgerton’s John Connolly, a Southie who grew up in the same community as Bulger and is now an FBI agent going up against the kind of crime that Bulger himself is committing.

Connelly hatches a plan – get his fellow Southie to rat out his competitors, and he’ll turn a blind eye to Bulger’s criminal activity. Connolly looks like a pro when coming up with evidence that puts the city’s other mobsters behind bars, but he’s actively diverting FBI attention away from the murders and other crimes he knows Bulger is involved with.

Edgerton, a terrific Australian actor who has been perfectly convincing as an American in films like Warrior and The Gift, is unfortunately miscast here: his deeply-inflected accent proves all the more unconvincing when going up against the actress cast as his wife, Julianne Nicholson, a true Bostonite.

The same can be said for Benedict Cumberbatch, who seems to be doing a low-key JFK-type thing as Bulger’s younger brother Billy, a politician and one of the most influential people in the state. Depp, Edgerton, and Cumberbatch are playing characters who all grew up in the same neighbourhood, but you wouldn’t think they were from the same countries going by these performances.

The rest of the high-profile cast fares better: Dakota Johnson (Fifty Shades of Grey) has a few strong scenes as Bulger’s girlfriend and mother of his child; Juno Temple is memorable in a single scene as a prostitute; David Harbour, Adam Scott, and Kevin Bacon are fine as the FBI men who buy into Connelly’s plan; and Corey Stoll is the US attorney who ultimately brings him down.

But best of all are the members of Bulger’s crew, many of whom are just as frightening as their boss. W. Earl Brown is the hitman who confesses to multiple murders without losing a breath, Jesse Plemons is the new kid on the block and Rory Cochrane is Bulger’s number 2; Peter Saarsgard is fun as an off-kilter associate. 

There’s a lot of great material in Black Mass, and it touches upon a lot of diverse themes in the Bulger story – his jai alai dealings in Miami, his support of the IRA in Ireland, his relationship with his mother and son, and the small things that get inside his head. That very first scene, as he watches Brown’s character lick his hands and dip them into a bowl of peanuts, is perfect.

But everything is told in fragments: we rarely get a chance to spend more than a few minutes with any particular line of thought, and they don’t build on each other to any kind of significant theme. There’s so much material stuffed in here that none of it feels sufficiently fleshed out, including the FBI stuff that gets the majority of the screen time.  

Star-studded and peppered with memorable moments, Black Mass is worth checking out even though it isn’t a complete success. For a more insightful look at the central character and many of the same events, see Joe Berlinger’s documentary Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger.

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