Calling all Johnny Depp fans, especially those who might have been worried about their favorite star and his relatively poor track record at the box office lately: your boy is as good as ever in Black Mass, delivering a chilling performance as real-life South Boston gangster James “Whitey” Bulger in a film that’s every bit as no-holds-barred as it looks in its marketing. Depp and Joel Edgerton lead an all-star cast in this bloody and brutal depiction of Bulger and his decades-long “alliance” with FBI Agent John Connolly, an arrangement that benefited the agency by helping them put away major Italian Mafia figures attempting to muscle in on Bulger’s territory, but also in effect gave Bulger free rein to become of the most feared crime lords in the history of the city.
In 1975, James Bulger was just another cog in the criminal machine that was known in the area thanks to a Boston Herald story as “the Winter Hill Gang.” Recently released from a prison stay in Alcatraz, Bulger, whose younger brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch) had kept his nose clean and risen from their Southie projects origins to the post of state senator, had ambitions of his own, most of which had a great deal to do with keeping local racketeering under Winter Hill control and out of the hands of Cosa Nostra family members moving into the area looking to take over the action.
Enter rising FBI star Connolly (Joel Edgerton, The Gift), who grew up in the same South Boston neighborhood with James and Billy, where family and loyalty mean more than any laws or rules made by those outside “Southie”, and who now looks to further his career by taking down Mafia operations in his hometown. What he proposes to James seems unthinkable: that Bulger serve as an informant for the Bureau, serving up actionable intel on the Angiulo branch of the Mafia making life difficult for Winter Hill. In exchange for said intel, Connolly and his supervisor, Agent Morris (David Harbour) would allow Bulger and his associates to keep doing business within certain limits. “You can’t kill anybody, Jimmy,” Connolly says as the two men come to their accord.
Yeah. As if that’s really going to happen.
What follows this pact is almost twenty years of unchecked criminal business activity by Bulger and his associates as their revenue streams branch out into gambling and the drug trade, while FBI investigations led by Connolly and Morris slowly but surely dismantle the Angiulo operation in Boston. That time isn’t without personal setbacks for Bulger and Connolly both — they suffer losses both professional and deeply personal in the course of their “alliance” — but for the most part Bulger seems virtually untouchable despite committing almost every sort of violent crime thanks to his “FBI connection.”
That is, until the day when more scrupulous men in the Justice Department, men not connected to Southie in any way and led by a new federal prosecutor (Corey Stoll), begin to question how and why Bulger has remained in operation all this time and never been investigated. Those inquiring eyes turn to Connolly, and from then on it’s only a matter of time before everything starts to crash down around them both.
As violent and bloody as Black Mass gets, and it’s certainly not for the feint of heart, what’s perhaps most compelling about the film is the tremendously complex characterization of Bulger that’s at the film’s heart. Director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart), working from a script by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth (Get on Up, Fair Game), keeps the narrative lens focused tightly on Johnny Depp as the performer strives to bring to life all of Bulger’s many sides, from ruthless murdering mob boss to devoted son and doting father to loyal friend and brother. As notorious as Bulger was and as heinous as his crimes turned out to be, the film takes extra care to allow screen time for moments that illustrate an undeniable truth: that Bulger was beloved by many in Southie, likely at least as many as those that feared him. It’s arguably in these moments that Depp is at his finest in this role, as the gentility and genuine affection he shows toward those he loves stands in stark contrast to the cold blooded, vicious murderer he shows himself to be just minutes later. For Depp, whose recent work includes such forgettable films as Mortdecai, Transcendence, and Dark Shadows, Black Mass is the return to the acting form we all know he’s capable of when he’s not out to specifically be “quirky.”
Outside of Depp and his performance here, Black Mass certainly does have its flaws, the most glaring of which is the woeful under-use of the talent pooled in the film’s ensemble cast. Joel Edgerton is the sole member of the group whose screen time even comes close to that of Depp’s; beyond him, every other performer here is relegated to the equivalent of a bit part. Now, to be sure, had each of these performers been given their due in terms of meaningful scenes and screen time, the film might have stretched to four hours in length, rather than the just over two hours where it currently stands. But the fine work turned in by Cumberbatch, Dakota Johnson as Bulger’s girlfriend and the mother of his young son Doug, and Peter Sarsgaard as Bulger associate Brian Halloran will certainly make you wish they’d been in the final cut of the film even just a little bit more.
Another legitimate criticism longtime mob/gangster film fans might make about Black Mass might be the relative lack of on-screen representation of just how Bulger built his criminal power base in Southie as the power of the Angiulos waned. A lot of “telling” and not “showing” goes on in the film in this regard, and a great deal seems to happen during the rather large time jumps the script makes in order to stay focused on the more character drama oriented narrative beats. We’re told Bulger introduced drugs to every teenager in Southie, for example, but we never see it, not even in a montage. For more casual film goers and fans buying tickets just to watch Depp chew scenery, this probably won’t be an issue. But for those gangster/crime drama devotees out there, those who relish the scenes in films like Goodfellas, Casino, and last year’s The Drop where the nuts and bolts of everyday underworld operations are broken down and translated into compelling film, the absence of such insight into the work of one of America’s most infamous real-life gangsters might feel like a glaring oversight.
So really, just how much you enjoy Black Mass may just depend on your expectations going into the film. If you’re there to enjoy the performance of one of the most versatile actors of our age finally taking on a role worthy of his talents after years of hamming it up as the Once and Future Capt. Jack Sparrow and other caricature roles (Oh, didn’t you know? There’s another Pirates of the Caribbean coming! :: groan ::), then you’re in for a fun, creepy treat. But if you’re there expecting the next truly great gangster epic, one to hold up alongside The Departed, for example, then you may come away slightly disappointed. Make no mistake: Black Mass is a fine film that’s worthy of your box office buck and should be in the conversation when awards season rolls around in a few months.
Just don’t expect to see it on anyone’s “Top 10 Gangster Films of All Time” lists anytime soon.
Starring Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Rory Cochrane, Jesse Plemons, Kevin Bacon. Directed by Scott Cooper.
Running Time: 122 minutes
Rated R for brutal violence, language throughout, some sexual references and brief drug use.