Director: Scott Cooper
Starring: Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dakota Johnson
Genre: Biography, Crime, Drama
Runtime: 2 hours, 2 minutes
Pirate captain. Demon barber. Mad Hatter. It would be hard to exaggerate the number of hats worn by Johnny Depp–literal and otherwise–over the course of the Oscar winner’s career as Hollywood’s most beloved chameleon. Eighteen years after Donnie Brasco, it’s yet another crime drama that has rediscovered Depp’s acting chops as the chilling face of James “Whitey” Bulger, once America’s most notorious gangster and the all-too-real subject of director Scott Cooper’s unsettling and surprisingly soulless Black Mass. Edgy and longwinded in its retelling of the FBI’s most baffling case, there is no single way to describe Black Mass, so as the film says, “Let’s start.”
The year is 1975 and the city of Boston, Massachusetts lies under the thumb of the Italian Mafia and the arch-rivals of then “smalltime” loan shark and hustler, Jimmy Bulger. Set during his time as the supposed informant for childhood friend and FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), the movie follows Bulger’s rise as the leader of South Boston’s Winter Hill gang as told by his various associates in an exhaustive montage of murder and monologuing. With a mole in the FBI and his brother Billy in the state senate (Benedict Cumberbatch), Bulger is virtually untouchable until the bureau attempts to cover its unlikely partner’s bloodstained tracks–permanently.
Depp lends a natural menace to the film as Boston’s guardian devil and a startling lookalike to the real deal. An unflinching sociopath one moment and an unassuming family man the next, Depp slips in and out of his personas as easily as he changes clothes. Yet Black Mass never offers a complete portrait of the man at its center. The film allows us such a narrow window into the home life of Bulger that we never quite know what makes him tick as we watch him help little old ladies with their groceries and drill holes in his rivals. That his motives should be up to audiences to decipher is a fair price for Depp’s masterful performance, minus the times his creepy prosthetics have him smiling like Star Wars’s Emperor Palpatine.
It’s Bulger’s inner circle that hosts the film’s most interesting puzzle, which is ultimately the bond between Bulger, Connolly, and Billy. Edgerton proves interesting as the double-dealing rat who sweet talks everyone but hard-nosed prosecutor Fred Wyshak (Corey Stoll) and dutiful Agent Robert Fitzpatrick (Adam Scott) into Bulger’s game of cat and mouse, though he and Cumberbatch seem all too preoccupied with fussing over their questionable Boston accents. Though Edgerton enjoys the most characterization of the three, neither he nor Cumberbatch never fully explore the underlying subtext of their relationship with Bulger, the inherent ethics of it remain intriguing.
If Black Mass is guilty of anything, it’s mishandling its criminally misused cast. David Harbour and Kevin Bacon are merely present as Connolly’s FBI superiors while Dakota Johnson manages to phone in her bleary-eyed performance from Fifty Shades of Grey as Bulger’s girlfriend and mother to his child, Lindsey Cyr. Rory Cochrane and Jesse Plemons are meanwhile reduced to third-rate henchmen as Bulger’s chief executioner, Stephen “The Rifleman” Flemmi, and Bulger’s most trusted accomplice, Kevin Weeks, with Plemons reprising his role from Breaking Bad in a bad wig.
The mere fact that it’s juggling so many actors onscreen is what compounds the film’s shoddy direction. Black Mass would rather Bulger fascinate its viewers than have them sympathize with him, yet its attempts to consistently dehumanize him prevent either as evidenced by the deletion of Foxcatcher’s Sienna Miller as Bulger’s longtime girlfriend and accomplice, Catherine Greig. That Black Mass lacks any moral anchor in its trail of violence and mayhem is wholly admirable in its honesty to its grim source material, though at the terrible cost of leaving Bulger feeling woefully uncomplicated for a man who at one time was second only to Osama Bin Laden on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list. Black Mass’s greatest crime is that there simply isn’t more of it, which is almost enough to make this writer believe it could have benefited from its original three hour run as opposed to the condensed two-hour feature film it is.
As a vehicle for Depp’s return to form and a twisted tour of Boston’s underworld, Black Mass is an ugly, hardbitten look at one of America’s most heartless killers that serves its leading star splendidly and few others. Depp’s turn at Bulger is undoubtedly his best performance in years and certainly not his last even if it’s one the film’s handicapped direction struggles to keep up with. Just who is Whitey Bulger? Black Mass won’t say, but we’re still learning what kind of actor Johnny Depp is.