Never entirely comfortable as a heartthrob, Johnny Depp always seemed to gravitate toward the weirdos, whether it was as a goth Scissorhands or a disappointing Wonka. And while the last few years of his career have devolved into an endless parade of funny-hat-wearing characters that are a deep as a puddle (the Mad Hatter being the most shrill), there was always a flicker of that slight madness that made him a star.Still hidden under an elaborate disguise – this time it’s piercing blue eyes and a white shock of thinning hair – Depp rises to the level of earlier character triumphs as Boston gangster Whitey Bulger in Black Mass. And while its narrative becomes too pedestrian to raise the movie above a middle-of-the-road effort, at least Depp gets the chance to add another rogue to his increasingly crammed gallery.
The frequent use of voiceover is just one of the many nods to the Scorsese school of gangster movies that director Scott Cooper employs as Black Mass‘ framing device consists of captured members of Bulger’s gang confessing their crimes to feds in the present day while flashing back to the rise of the Irish Mafia beginning in the 70s. It’s not quite Henry Hill’s “For as long as I can remember I always wanted to be a gangster” speech but it still works as exposition delivery.
We learn that at the same time that feared local thug Bulger is rising in the ranks, so too is FBI Agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) – opposite sides of the law connected by their shared upbringing in South Boston. Seeing a chance for mutual advancement in their fields, the ambitious and venal Connolly enters into an unholy alliance with Bulger to feed one another info as handler and informant. It’s a concept rife with murky morality, as Connolly essentially clears the way for Bulger’s advancement and turns a blind to his crimes, going so far as to actively help cover them up at points.
The unfortunate part is that while Bulger’s story is true, it feels rehashed as it’s already served as inspiration for Jack Nicholson’s character in Scorsese’s superior film The Departed (itself a remake of Infernal Affairs), and it was told well in the fine documentary Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger. No matter, Black Mass barrels right along and does provide some memorable scenes and performances within a movie that feels perfunctory by nature.
The best is probably a dinner scene late in the film, when Connolly and Bulger have become so entwined that the FBI agent invites a known criminal to his house for a BBQ. Depp digs deeps into Bulger’s nastiness, who at this point is mostly an unrepentant monster having lost what little humanity he had earlier with the death of a loved one. His yellowed teeth show in a demon’s rictus as a moment of fun turns deadly serious (a la Joe Pesci’s mercurial Tommy from Goodfellas). Sensing blood in the water, Bulger goes upstairs to menace Connolly’s wife Marianne (Julianne Nicholson) in a supremely creepy way.
Edgerton’s also stellar as the often clueless Connolly who looks up to Bulger as he would a big brother. Black Mass‘ story is just as much his as it is Bulger’s, which splits the narrative focus at times in a movie that struggles to gain momentum. The talented cast is certainly worthy of a Scorsese epic, as familiar faces like Kevin Bacon (as Connolly’s boss) and Peter Sarsgaard (as a weaselly criminal) help to liven the mood. It’s hard to get a handle on many of them though, as the movie spends more time on Bulger’s eroding humanity and Connolly’s loss of control as it builds towards an inevitable conclusion.
The queasy violence and period-appropriate needle drops are all there, but Black Mass at times just can’t get over the hump. When it fades to black after an abrupt ending, it’s hard to shake the feeling that some of the best material may have been left on the cutting room floor. The movie could’ve used more time to breathe and perhaps a longer length would’ve served it well, allowing the various plot threads to coalesce into something more than just the stylish slideshow of debauched criminal behaviour that it seems to be. It’s great to see Depp in fine form and it works in fits and starts, but Black Mass just doesn’t rise to the level of the better gangster films that inform so much of its cinematic DNA.
Black Mass (2015)
Directed by Scott Cooper
Runtime: 123 minutes