Chances are that if you live in the United States, you have probably heard of James “Whitey” Bulger. The infamous South Boston gangster gained an almost cult hero status after disappearing from the city as his empire crumbled around him, managing to evade the FBI for nearly two decades despite supposed sightings all over the globe until his surprise capture in California in 2011. Bulger’s trial and imprisonment reignited public interest in his life and bloody legacy, resulting in documentary released last year, Whitey: The United States of America vs. James J. Bulger from Joe Berlinger, the director of the Paradise Lost series. A big time Hollywood true crime biopic was simply inevitable, and with the release of Black Mass from director Scott Cooper, that time has come.
Cooper uses a series of FBI informant interviews to frame the story of Whitey Bulger (Johnny Depp) and his rise to untouchable power in Southie thanks to his alliance with childhood friend turned FBI agent John Connelly (Joel Edgerton) and his connections with his state senator brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch). As Connelly shields Bulger’s actions from his cohorts at the FBI (including David Harbour, Adam Scott and Kevin Bacon), Whitey uses his network of heavies (Jesse Plemons, W. Earl Brown, Rory Cochrane, et al) to seize control over the area from the Italian Mob operating out of the North End. Things are going swimmingly for the most dangerous man in Boston until a hotshot new State’s Attorney (Corey Stoll) comes onto the scene with more than a few questions about the city’s favorite informant.
If there is one thing to be said about Black Mass, it is that it is a film that does not have much ambition. This is evident immediately from its framing device, a series of interviews that has been the de rigueur device for any number of these sorts of biopics (even The Imitation Game made use of a similar setup). It is a statement of sorts, one that shouts from the mountaintops that this is a film that is not at all interested in taking chances. Depp stalks the screen like the menace he should be, but anyone hoping this would be a more nuanced turn from the actor who has essentially become a living cartoon will be sadly disappointed. He remains hidden behind layers of makeup and affectation, resulting in a performance that is just as outsized as anything he has done with Tim Burton since the turn of the century. With his pitched Monty Burns haircut, single brown tooth and comically oversaturated blue contact lenses that make him look like a White Walker from Game of Thrones whenever he removes his omnipresent aviator sunglasses, Depp’s Bulger is more courtroom sketch than man, though he does provide the requisite menace to earn the fear of those who would consider crossing him.
To be honest, though, the most interesting character in this film about Whitey Bulger is not Bulger himself, but rather Edgerton’s John Connelly. Connelly is a character of many motivations who uses his stature to protect and aid Bulger through a sense of loyalty to his friend and neighborhood regardless of the moral turpitude involved in his actions. Edgerton is at his best when the wagons begin to circle, lashing out like a cornered snake as the feds turn their ire to their so-called informant and his willing abettor. Whereas attempts to vaguely humanize Bulger through go-nowhere side plots fall flat (weep for Dakota Johnson and her nothing role), Connelly’s home life is more satisfyingly fleshed out. The way he slowly evolves, changing his gait and his wardrobe as he is drawn deeper into Bulger’s inner circle shows just the sort of subtlety that the film otherwise lacks (that is until it is specifically called out by a character just in case some in the audience did not notice). Depp may have been the headliner, but Edgerton is the real star here.
The rest of the cast does not fare as well, unfortunately. The Boston accent is a notorious one, and this cadre of Brits (Cumberbatch), Aussies (Edgerton) and Americans not from Boston (everyone else; Peter Sarsgaard especially appears to be inhabiting another planet) run the gamut of actors whose full understanding of the accent is hearing impressions of impressions of impressions of John F Kennedy, the sort of gestalt entity that has become the Hollywood Boston Accent. It is something that comes up from time to time, but it is also symptomatic of the weaknesses of the film as a whole. Black Mass is the sort of film that uses interviews as a framing device and ends with title cards explaining what happened to its principal characters because of course it does. It is the definition of a film on rails, never deviating from its well-worn path regardless of how uninteresting it always is. Cooper has the ability to find good lead actors to keep his films afloat (Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart, Christian Bale in Out of the Furnace, Depp and Edgerton here), but that seems to be all that concerns him, leaving little left over to sustain anything beyond the force of its central performance. Black Mass is competently made, adequately filmed and has decent production design. But when all of these perfectly okay aspects are draped over such a thoroughly unimpressive and uninspired spine of a story, it all just slowly deflates like a tired old balloon over the course of two hours.