Ghoul or Gangster? Johnny Depp Shocks in 'Black Mass'

The true story of Boston wiseguy Whitey Bulger is not for the faint of heart.

Warner Brothers

Over 30 years in the making, Black Mass is the story of James "Whitey" Bulger the most famous gangster in the history of Boston and a figure whose name still turns stomachs in the Hub. The film, directed by Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart), balances on the edge of explosive and forgettable. It's no character study. Black Mass is horror, pure and simple, and Johnny Depp plays Freddy Krueger.

Cooper covers 20 years of Krueger's, er... Bulger's life, his prime, when he turned Southie into his own personal graveyard while playing five sides against the middle. Like a good gangster though, Bulger goes home to his mother in the morning and shares Sunday dinners with his brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch), a Massachusetts state senator. 

The Cain and Abel plot isn't probed, however, Black Mass focuses on Bulger's most important relationship: with John Connelly (Joel Edgerton), a neighborhood kid who grew up worshipping Jimmy. Connelly grew up to be a FBI agent. As Bostonians know all too well, the two project kids forged an "unholy alliance," a quid pro quo that bought Bulger FBI protection in exchange for information, specifically about Bulger rival Jerry Angiulo, the local mafia underboss.

The script, by Jez Butterworth and Mark Mallouk, switches back and forth between the cold FBI offices and whereever Jimmy is murdering someone. Bulger's life plays out in a series of violent episodes. The camera soaks it in. He struts, sunglasses on, receding hairline slicked back like Hannibal Lecter's (or LBJ's). And, if he's not killing someone, Bulger is doing something else equally abhorrent. He floods Boston with heroin. He extorts and intimidates everyone he comes in contact with, instilling fear in an entire community while becoming richer than Croesus.

Johnny Depp and Joel Edgerton in Black Mass. (Warner Brothers)
Johnny Depp and Joel Edgerton in Black Mass. (Warner Brothers)

Meanwhile, Connelly becomes a master at manipulating the clockwork of the FBI's procedural philosophy by creating fake reports (as we learn later) and giving Bulger credit for the eventual downfall of the Italian mob in Boston, which, of course, only made Whitey more powerful. The story is both infuriating and fascinating and Cooper's film works on a surface level. What's missing is a reason to care. Black Mass displays evil, but doesn't explain it. Bulger, even in his most vulnerable moments, like when he plays cards with his dear old ma, never comes off as anything less than a viper. Behind beady-eyed blue contacts, Depp captures Bulger's intimidating presence, most importantly, but he also has fun doing it. There are shades of Cagney in the performance.

Depp is magnetic, and a great leader for this cast of ugly mugs. Jesse Plemons and Rory Cochrane both wear the cold winters of Boston on their faces as Jimmy's top guys: Kevin Weeks and Steve "The Rifleman" Flemmi. Plus, Cooper fills the movie with colorful Boston extras and non-actors. But the cast standout is Edgerton as Connelly. He's not a complex character. There are no scenes where the agent questions his reckless decisions. And Edgerton wears that cocksure arrogance like a title belt. He's got a bullshit answer for everyone, even his wife (Mass. native Julianne Nicholson), who sees right through it (don't they always?).  

The depth of Black Mass doesn't come from its storytelling. (You won't learn anything here you can't read on Wikipedia.) It comes from everything you see onscreen. This is a film about a time and place and you feel transported there. Boston, the new New York in terms of crime thrillers, comes alive thanks to Cooper's eye for detail and restrained style. The old Bulger hangout, Triple O's Lounge, is reincarnated and the clothes and cars are all live from the '70s and '80s. Black Mass is a worthy Boston noir. It won't move you, like Mystic River or Gone Baby Gone, but it will likely scare you.

Ghoul or Gangster? Johnny Depp Shocks in 'Black Mass'
Warner Brothers
Senior Editor at Zimbio. I'll take Johnny Clay, the Rev. Harry Powell, and Annie Savoy. You can have the rest.
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