Johnny Depp is back in form as notorious Boston gangster James “Whitey” Bulger in director Scott Cooper’s “Black Mass.” The meat of the story is absurdly promising, primarily because it’s true. Thanks primarily to the F.B.I. looking the other way, from the mid-seventies to the mid-nineties this sociopath disguised as a gangster was able to build a South Boston crime empire. Still, the promise of this can’t-lose premise is squandered almost completely in a dull, over-stuffed screenplay.
As Bulger, Depp is a triple threat: fascinating, menacing and believable. The receding hairline, ice-blue oversized contact lenses, and Southie accent are merely ornaments. What really sells the character is Depp’s stillness. Unlike Jack Nicholson’s over-the-top, over-praised performance as a character based on Bulger in Martin Scorsese’s over-the-top, over-praised Oscar-winner “The Departed,” Depp underplays to great effect. If only the movie surrounding him wasn’t just as motionless.
The film’s primary flaw is Joel Edgerton’s character John Connolly, the F.B.I. agent who put his career trajectory over justice. The real-life Connolly (who’s currently in prison) might have been an amoral slab of beef who was never conflicted over his role in aiding and abetting Bulger’s rampant criminality, up to and including murder. The problem is that this doesn’t make for a very interesting character.
There is no one to identify with or root for. Had Edgerton’s character started off as a good man doing a bold thing (turning Bulger into an informant) who eventually finds himself in over his head and morally compromised by small degrees, “Black Mass” wouldn’t be completely lacking in dramatic and emotional tension.
Benedict Cumberbatch plays Bulger’s younger brother, a prominent and powerful local politician, and the script has no idea what to do with him. He’s just there to spout exposition. Nothing is done to explore the moral tension of this familial relationship. We’re never even told if he was compromised.
Going back 80-plus years to the era of Jimmy Cagney and Edward G. Robinson, the best gangster films have always succeeded in morally compromising the audience a bit as we live vicariously through the bad guy. Not because we approve of criminality. What we do admire, though, is someone who refuses to follow the rules and lives by their own code. “Black Mass” offers none of this.
We’re told Bulger created a crime empire. Told. We never see it. We never see it being built. At the beginning of the film Bulger is a guy who drives around South Boston in a big car filled with pudgy cronies. At the end of the film, Bulger is a guy who drives around South Boston in a big car filled with pudgy cronies.
Bulger doesn’t seem to care about anything other than coming up with different ways to murder anyone he suspects of being a rat, this includes his own fate and future. Why, then, should we?
“Black Mass” is a criminal waste of potential. The performances are good. Everything looks great. The period settings are believable. Nevertheless, other than Depp’s performance, the most remarkable thing is that so many talented people were able to make a fascinating story this dull.
In 2001, Depp starred in the late Ted Demme’s absurdly under-appreciated “Blow.” That’s how it’s done.
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