For Black Mass, Johnny Depp has dusted off his A-game, which has lain dormant for far too long. The actor's transformative portrayal of Whitey Bulger reminds us that Depp, when motivated, can do impressive work. By inhabiting the character rather than merely playing him, Depp deepens an otherwise generic gangster story that often feels familiar (a little like Scorsese-lite). Bulger is by far the most interesting thing about Black Mass and Depp's acting is what gives Bulger his screen presence and intensity.
As a dramatic thriller, Black Mass has trouble getting into low orbit. There are some tremendous scenes but the narrative as a whole feels more like a chronology of dastardly dealings than the epic tale of a criminal's rise and fall. There's a sense that too much of Bulger's life has been compacted into an easily digestible two hours, disallowing the kind of character development that would have made Black Mass a richer, more disturbing experience. We catch glimpses of complex, conflicted relationships but they are never allowed to germinate beyond the basic needs of the story.
To the extent that Scott Cooper's goal is to relate the events of Whitey Bulger's life between 1975 and 1995, he succeeds. As a straightforward bio-pic, Black Mass works. Framed a series of extended chronological flashbacks, the movie introduces us to the lead character when he's the leader of a two-bit South Boston Irish criminal gang in 1975. His hair-trigger temper and violent inclinations get him in trouble with the larger, more dangerous Italian mob, and he ends up being targeted by the Mafia for elimination. Enter FBI Golden Boy John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), a South Boston native who has come home to spearhead a task force assigned with cleaning up the city. A childhood friend of Whitey's younger brother (and current political heavyweight) Bill (Benedict Cumberbatch), John reaches out to the gangster with a deal: if Whitey will provide the FBI with actionable intelligence that leads to the decimation of the Mafia, the FBI will allow Whitey to act unmolested. This results in a mutually beneficial relationship that sours when Whitey becomes the biggest boss in all of Boston and openly defies law enforcement with brazen criminal acts.
Aspects of Black Mass echo other Boston-based crime films, most notably The Departed. The setting is sufficiently different from New York to give these films a unique flavor. And, although The Departed was adapted from the Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs, the lead villain (played by Jack Nicholson) was loosely based on Bulger. Black Mass follows the "Scorsese approach" in its non-glamorized depiction of organized crime, showing the brutality and viciousness of the participants as a counterpoint to a so-called "moral code". Although Bulger is a ruthless killer, we are provided with hints of a softer side: he loves his mother and dotes on his young son. Those humanizing elements disappear, however, as the objects of Bulger's affection are removed and he becomes obsessed with control and power.
Central to Black Mass' storyline is the relationship between Bulger and Connolly. More a business arrangement than a friendship, this provides Bulger with a degree of immunity and Connelly with a quick ladder to promotion. The film is less successful in developing Connolly than Bulger. Perhaps it's because of the latter's larger-than-life persona but, despite character building scenes between Connolly and his wife, the FBI agent never feels fully formed. The density of Connolly's motivations is only partially explored. To what degree does he allow himself to be manipulated? Is his primary motivation personal gain or is he in awe of Bulger?
Although Depp will get the lion's share of attention for his efforts in Black Mass, he is supported by a capable group of actors. Leading the way is Joel Edgerton, whose cocky, self-assured Connelly is the polar opposite from the damaged, twisted character he played in the recent The Gift (which Edgerton also wrote and directed). Also in the mix are Benedict Cumberbatch, Kevin Bacon, and Dakota Johnson, whose affecting performance as the mother of Bulger's son shows there's more to the actress than what she (figuratively) displayed in Fifty Shades of Grey.
Black Mass is not The Next Great American Gangster Film. When Oscar season rolls around, it's unlikely to be found on any Best Picture nomination short lists. However, by putting aside the outrageous Captain Jack-fueled image that has earned him so much money over the past decade, Depp provides a character who transcends the screenplay's weaknesses. He makes Black Mass not merely watchable, but enjoyable. He brings Whitey Bulger to life with force and flair that allow us to forgive the movie's narrative shortcomings.
© 2015 James Berardinelli