Starring: Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dakota Johnson, Rory Cochrane, Jesse Plemons, W. Earl Brown, Kevin Bacon, Julianne Nicholson, Peter Sarsgaard, Adam Scott, David Harbour, Corey Stoll, Juno Temple, Bill Camp | Screenplay by: Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth | Director: Scott Cooper
Adapted from the 2001 book Black Mass: The True Story of an Unholy Alliance Between the FBI and the Irish Mob by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill, Black Mass is a dreary chronicling of the rise and fall of James “Whitey” Bulger and the Winter Hill Gang. From 1975 to 1994, Bulger was given free reign to expand his criminal operations while doubling as an informant for the FBI. Little was given and much was gained by Bulger as he extorted and murdered his way to the top.
The third film in Scott Cooper’s young career, one could fathom he signed a faustian deal to have a bounty of talent at his disposal. Unlike his first two films – Crazy Heart and Out of the Furnace – that made the landscape as important as the cast itself, Cooper pared away any excess in Black Mass until there was nothing but raw nerve remaining.
In getting to the core of this unsavory character, Johnny Depp thrives within the somber setting of 1970s South Boston. For nearly two decades Jimmy Bulger held a majority of Boston under his thumb; nothing was beyond his grasp, no one was above his menace. Depp easily exudes Bulger’s cutthroat demeanor, depicting a man who is always on the fringes of civility. Willing and able to alter his appearance for a worthy role, Depp steps into the shadows of Bulger’s life with an ominous magnetism few actors can convincingly exude. This isn’t an actor merely assuming a grim visage for levity’s sake, but a complete transformation down to Jimmy’s sociopathic tendencies.
If the intent of Depp’s portrayal as Bulger was to make everyone – from his castmates to the audience – highly uncomfortable, well then… Mission friggin accomplished, my friend. The overall level of unease whenever Jimmy enters a room is akin to the grim reaper making a house call. Any word out of one’s mouth could spell their end, no matter how many years they’ve run with Bulger or what agency they may represent.
On the flip side, Bulger shows flashes of heart despite his extremely insular nature. One moment he’s scheming to have a number of his enemies whacked, the next he’s helping an old lady bring her groceries in her modest home. Bulger also reveals a series of (fluid) ethics to justify his hypocritical commands. He’s not a rat, he’s forming an alliance. Sure Jimmy, surrrrrrre.
Black Mass isn’t attempting to make Bulger a likeable character in any form; those rare moments of empathy are an automatic response done only for the expectation of others. Most of Whitey’s soul – or whatever what was once inside him – died long ago, and what little humanity lingers shatters during the film.
By focusing on exposing the baser instincts of these band of killers and unscrupulous agents, however, few quickly regress into nothing more than base caricatures. Granted, the Bulger boys (oldest brother William played by a very shrewd Benedict Cumberbatch) are given significant screen time. With a gamut of profound character actors filling every scene, Black Mass had the unusual (intentional?) task of tempering its own flame. Perhaps it was Cooper’s plan to keep the film at a simmer, an unusual decision given the violent history of the Winter Hill Gang.
The lone exception was the impeccably Bostonian rendition of disgraced FBI Agent John Connolly, played by Joel Edgerton. Looking to make a name for himself within the agency, Connolly – a Southie and admirer of Bulger – forms an alliance with Whitey that inadvertently grants Jimmy a free pass for all his criminal activities. As the operation grows and remains unchecked, so does Connolly’s ego and shoulder pads (ah, 80s fashion), thanks to the crumbs of information Bulger feeds the FBI. Black Mass is about Connolly as much as Bulger, both of whom seeking to acquire wealth and power yet amazingly don’t possess an endgame. Ultimately, their hubris and disregard for the bodies they piled over the years come back to haunt them.
It’s distressing to believe that nearly an entire generation has passed knowing Depp as nothing more than the clown prince of the seven seas. If given the chance, Black Mass will be a brutal introduction to those unschooled and refresher to hopeful cinephiles that Johnny Depp still has “it”. Though a slow burn, Black Mass is a worthwhile true crime drama that affirms that the enemy of my enemy is no friend at all.