My friend once told me a story of how he was visiting Las Vegas in the mid-1990s. He said that the person he was with, John, introduced him to a rather sharply-dressed man who told him, “Whatever you want here, just ask for it,” and then walked away. John said, “Do you know who that was? It was Jimmy Bulger.” Whether or not the story is true remains in the reality or imagination of my buddy, but it’s an interesting juxtaposition to the following review of Black Mass, the story of James “Whitey” Bulger’s violent rise from small-time hood to organized crime kingpin on the south side of Boston from the mid-1970s to the early ’90s.
Directed by Scott Cooper (“Crazy Heart,” “Out of the Furnace”), written by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth and based on the book by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill, Black Mass begins in 1975, a few years after Bulger (Johnny Depp, “The Rum Diary”) was released after stretches in Leavenworth and Alcatraz prisons. He builds up his syndicate — numbers rackets, vending machines, bookie joints, etc. — through sheer intimidation, utilizing the “talents” of members of the Winter Hill Gang: Kevin Weeks (Jesse Plemons, “The Homesman”), Steven Flemmi (Rory Cochrane, “Argo”), John Martorano (W. Earl Brown, “Wild”) and Brian Halloran (Peter Sarsgaard, “Night Moves”), among others.
His biggest ally, however, is childhood friend and FBI Agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton, “The Gift”), who makes Bulger a partner (as opposed to an “informant”) in bringing down the Italian mob which also seeks territory in South Boston. Soon, though, in an effort to protect his associate, Connolly begins to look the other way as Bulger takes advantage of the void to muscle in his enemy’s former stomping grounds. There is also an element of racism here as one of Whitey’s cronies chastises an Irish policemen for being a “native son who sides with his oppressors.”
Add to the mix Bulger’s kid brother, Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch, “The Imitation Game”), a Massachusetts state senator who deftly avoids his sibling’s darker activities while benefiting from his popularity in his neighborhood. Connolly is walking a thin rope, as well, attempting to keep his friend from trouble while showing his superiors, especially Agent Charles McGuire (Kevin Bacon, “Jayne Mansfield’s Car”) that the informant deal is worth continuing.
Soon, however, after losing his son and mother, Bulger becomes more and more emboldened, ordering hits on several prominent individuals as well as personally murdering a prostitute and a stool pigeon. The handwriting is on the wall when a new U.S. Prosecutor, Fred Wyshak (Corey Stoll, “Ant-Man”) arrives on the scene. And when those walls begin to close in and his associates are arrested or voluntarily confess, Whitey takes a powder and avoids the law for more than a decade before his capture and convictions in 2011.
In this role of the rail-thin, steely-eyed, unemotional killer and gangster, Depp makes a tremendous comeback from such dismal roles as Will (in “Transcendence”), Matthew (“Lucky Them”) and Tonto (“The Lone Ranger”). Here, he gives one of the absolute best performances of his storied career and one which will surely earn him another Academy Award nomination (and possibly his first Oscar). Edgerton does fine work, too, knowing what he is doing is wrong, but trying to talk himself into the effectiveness of the arrangement nonetheless. His goofy attempts to straddle the line between law and disorder are also interesting, but they could have been so much more. Like everyone else, however, he gives a pretty good Boston accent (especially for an Aussie native).
The moral ambiguity between Bulger and Connolly, and to a lesser extent Billy, is ripe to be explored here, but the screenplay opts instead to cover areas already saturated by better mob pictures from the Scorsese and Coppola handbook. Another sin is the sheer predictability of the enterprise. For instance, we know that anytime someone ticks Bulger off, the very next scene will have them being murdered in some horrible fashion. It seems Black Mass moves from murder to exposition to murder to more exposition. There’s also no tension, humor or irony that advances our knowledge of who Bulger is that allows it to go beyond just another gangster movie. It is not a bad film by any means, it just could have been so much better in its execution. (Kudos to the period work, though, as the automobiles, suits, hairstyles and especially the newscasts of the day shine through).
It’s a shame that the interesting story of James “Whitey” Bulger — which I am convinced can still be made into a truly great film in more competent hands — leaves potential and opportunity on the table. Cooper, who directed Jeff Bridges to his first Oscar (after four nominations), may just have the same magic touch for Depp, who certainly deserves it for this effort, but that may be all he can get out this motion picture.