Mob-movie clichés weigh down this otherwise compelling true-crime thriller.
The real-life story of James “Whitey” Bulger, the South Boston crime boss who acted as a protected FBI informant for years until the arrangement imploded, is one of the most bizarre, once-in-a-lifetime stories you’re likely to hear. Black Mass, directed by Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart, Out of the Furnace) and starring Johnny Depp as the murderous Mr. Bulger, isn’t quite as rarified; Depp acts harder and better than he has in many years, but other than his performance, the film isn’t anything special. Cooper and writers Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth use familiar tropes from the mob-movie lexicon to make the story palatable to wide audiences, and in doing so strip the story of all its strangeness.
Aside from that minor tragedy, the film actually works very well. Goodfellas and The Departed are great movies, so the fact that Cooper so blatantly borrows from them isn’t so much offensive as it is uninspired, and at the end of the day, he’s crafted an effective movie. We follow Bulger’s rise from general small-time crime lord to over-powered, FBI-protected kingpin and, eventually, man on the run. Catapulting him from low-level extortion and drug deals to Southie (and beyond) dominance is a deal he strikes with an old childhood friend, John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), who now works for the FBI. As long as Whitey helps the feds take down other, bigger crime organizations, he and his gang will be free to run amok and expand their empire, given he doesn’t kill anyone in doing so (good luck with that). Making things even stickier, his brother, Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch, struggling with an awful Boston accent), is one of the most prominent politicians in the state.
The true-crime story revolves around Bulger and the demons that tormented him and compel him to become the thing he hates most—a snitch, a rat, a sell-out. Arguably the biggest contributing factor is the tragic death of his young son, whose mother (Dakota Johnson) never looks at Bulger the same again. With his family crumbling around him, his humanity begins to twist and melt away until he’s nothing more than a merciless overlord with a thirst for vengeful dominance.
Depp’s performance is gravitational, drawing everything in from us to the other actors. All converges on the blue-eyed, murderous bastard, and Depp more than bears the load with his best on-screen effort in who knows how long. He’s a damn good actor, and god knows we needed a reminder of that. He plays Bulger as a terrifying, calculating, unpredictable killer who always seems one step ahead of everyone, including us. His poker face is impenetrable, and we’re left breathlessly anticipating when he’ll strike next and dispatch of his next victim with his gruesome handiwork. Depp’s make-up walks the line between frightening and distracting, but he more often than not nudges the effect to the side of the former.
Tension rises as Connolly scrambles to protect Bulger and keep the deal intact, weaseling his way out of tight spots (like when Bulger is the prime suspect in a high-profile out-of-state murder) and wiping sweat off of his brow with every close call. Edgerton’s Napoleonic braggadocio is very funny, lending a frantic comedic flavor to an otherwise deathly affair. The rest of the FBI and Southie gang crews are filled out by a stacked line-up of actors, from Kevin Bacon and Corey Stoll as Connolly’s skeptical superiors, to Jesse Plemons, Peter Sarsgaard, and W. Earl Brown as Bulger’s colorful, heavy-fisted underlings.
What threatens to yank us away from the tight grip of Depp’s performance is the material, which is never wholly original and is downright second-rate when it practices mob-movie mimicry. One moment sees Bulger breaking bread with Connolly and one of his FBI partners, John Morris (David Harbour). Bulger asks John to give up the family-secret recipe for the delicious marinade he bathed their steaks in and, in a mild panic, John lets him in on the secret ingredients. The mood turns icy cold when Bulger asks how he could ever trust someone who would divulge a family secret so easily. Nobody’s laughing, and the room is filled with nervous energy. It’s Joe Pesci’s “Do I amuse you?” speech in Goodfellas, but only half as effective. It’s almost as if Cooper felt he needed to outfit Bulger with mob clichés in order for the movie to work. A more idiosyncratic approach may have allowed Depp to reach greater heights.