Johnny Depp stars as Irish mobster Whitey Bulger, who collaborates with the FBI in order to eliminate their common enemy: the Italian mob. The drama tells the story of this unholy alliance, which spiraled out of control, allowing Whitey to evade law enforcement while consolidating his power and becoming one of the most ruthless and dangerous gangsters in Boston history.
Guns are fired, faces smashed, money is made, and deep strings sound in Black Mass, a gangster picture in the rise-and-fall mode of Scarface, the granddaddy of them all. This is a rolling fog of a movie, set in 1970s and 1980s Boston, that obscures more than it illuminates about the man at its centre: James “Whitey” Bulger, a real-life crime lord and fugitive who was captured in 2011, after 15 years on the run. An odd choice by most other standards, the casting of Johnny Depp as a blue-eyed Boston hood suits the film’s reigning mood of enigma, iconoclasm, and precious little human warmth.
Black Mass uses as a framing device confessional-style interviews with Bulger’s cronies, a crew of four or five men from the poor “Southie” neighborhood of Boston where Bulger grew up. Notably missing from these interviews is John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), a childhood friend of Bulger’s who went on to join the FBI. Though it unfolds mostly in situations—the heists and deals that led to Bulger’s rise, and those that brought him down—the story at the centre of Black Mass concerns the relationship between Bulger and Connolly. As part of his plan to bring down Boston’s Italian mafia, Connolly persuades Bulger to act as his source; their collusion clears the way for Bulger’s criminal empire, and Connolly’s induction into it.
Director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart) demonstrates a mimetic love of the gangster genre, and a tight grip on its iconography. Wearing ice-blue contacts and bushy eyebrows, his hairline recessed via skullcap, Depp is part Edward G. Robinson and part T-1000; his performance has stillness and loathing but not as much menace as that might suggest. Bulger’s part feels underwritten (in an overstuffed, profanity-laden script by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth) and given to kingpin-isms like “If nobody sees it, it didn’t happen”. Bulger’s underworld runs on personal connections and loyalty to the home team, but Black Mass never approaches a series like The Sopranos in its depiction of the pathos and paradox of any pitiless criminal enterprise posing as a “family”.
"Depp is part Edward G. Robinson and part T-1000; his performance has stillness and loathing but not as much menace as that might suggest"
We see Bulger being sweet to his mother, his six-year-old son (who died suddenly, in the wake of an allergic reaction), and his brother Billy (a fine Benedict Cumberbatch), a state senator with a rather large blind spot. But those are brief, calculated touches that do little to square us with the man otherwise described as a psychopath, “strictly criminal”. The suggestion that Bulger’s evil flourished only after the deaths of his son and his mother is unconvincing, and leaves a narrative gap that neither the film’s rapid-fire sub-plotting nor Depp’s forbidding countenance and downturned mouth (there are a lot of downturned mouths) can completely fill.
I suppose this matters because Black Mass isn’t much if it’s not a study in criminal psychology—corruption as a kind of contagion passed between Bulger and Connolly. The steady flow of sour deals, minor slights avenged, and prostitutes that require beating to death (poor Juno Temple) begin to wear on one’s attention. Bulger commits murder, and (we are told) introduces all manner of drugs into the community he supposedly loves; he seems miserable if not particularly greedy, and the source of his will to power remains unclear. Crowned a hero for his role in bringing down the Italian mob, Connolly eventually draws his colleagues’ suspicion, especially that of a dogged federal prosecutor played by Corey Stoll.
Edgerton brings a potent bravado and ambition to the part, but Connolly is no tragic figure, nor even a particularly interesting chump. Like Bulger, he is a cipher; from a dramatic perspective the opacity of his moral character presents more of a problem than its thick bands of black.
Reviewed at TIFF 2015.