Whitey Bulger was a very bad man. After serving time in Alcatraz, Bulger spent the 1970s and 1980s as a career criminal, serial murderer and the head of Boston’s Winter Hill Gang. He was also an FBI informant and, stranger still, surrounded by neighbors who declared that he was “a great guy.”
Director Scott Cooper once again builds a character-driven drama, in which a rough, crime-stained background infects the current, troubled lives of the protagonists. Bulger, in a welcome change of pace, is played by Johnny Depp, who exudes a volcanic intensity by investing his energies into a role that isn’t remotely comical or “quirky.”
Rather than aim to create an epic statement about the mafia or attempt to recreate the glories of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, Cooper shapes this as street-wise tale of turf war. Bulger isn’t Don Corleone or even Donnie Brasco but the most immediate theme on hand pulls us in: Bulger is a monster, possibly even the devil, but he can be disarmingly kind to people in his inner circle. Despite his reputation, people love him. Rather than duplicate the family dynamic of many gangster tales, Cooper portrays Bulger as a walking embodiment of evil as an accepted, out-in-the-open entity.
Depp is unsettling in a role that’s among his best, entirely different from his recent, more mainstream (if no less offbeat) turns. Here, his ghoulish appearance makes a strong first impression and Depp ably uses the make-up to generate fear and unease. Gradually, he internalizes the darkness festering within Bulger.
As a key figure who enables Bulger’s despicable behavior, Joel Edgerton conveys his character’s bravado, though he never makes the role as sympathetic as he should be. There’s a tragic quality to the character that doesn’t come across. The film is at its best during the tense confrontations between Depp and his co-stars. Dakota Johnson nicely plays Bulger’s wife and has two great scenes with Depp. Unfortunately, after making a strong impression, she vanishes from the movie. Julianne Nicholson, playing Edgerton’s spouse, has the scariest scene, in which Bulger talks his way into her bedroom and offers veiled threats. Benedict Cumberbatch is fine as Bulger’s brother, but whatever accent he’s trying to pull off is a mystery. Unlike his awkward turn in Ant-Man, Corey Stoll registers strongly as a voice of reason within the FBI. Kevin Bacon, as Edgerton’s superior, is typically first-rate.
This is better and less formulaic than Cooper’s Out of the Furnace, but it lacks the contained greatness of his Crazy Heart. The violence is appropriately off-putting, though that doesn’t mean this is an easy film to watch. Black Mass is absorbing but a little stiff. Nearly two and a half hours long but boasting a great ensemble cast, there’s a lot here–but it’s also not enough.
This is a cold film with plot and character developments that feel disjointed (or cut down in the editing room). Bulger is fascinating, but he’s not a colorful, enjoyable villain. He’s a vile, unhinged monster–something like a hungry rattlesnake devouring a kitten. Depp never winks at the audience or allows an apology to slip into his committed characterization. Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of a fictionalized version of Bulger in Martin Scorsese’s The Departed was also shocking and cruel but flavored with humor.
Depp’s gives an unflinching, full-bodied portrait of a hideous character. While there’s no detectable trace of his characteristic whimsy, there is brilliance in his work as Bulger. Black Mass overall is not a bull’s eye, but the story maintains its morbid fascination and Depp, as always, is something to see.