If you grew up in the Boston area in the 1970s, the name James “Whitey” Bulger was spoken in the same way that people tell stories about the bogeyman. He was a criminal, a kingpin, and a convicted killer, but he was also more than that. He was a vicious, amoral spectre who looked in the mirror and saw Robin Hood staring back. After Whitey was finally apprehended in 2011 after years on the run, it wasn’t a question of if, but when Hollywood would turn the leader of the Winter Hill Gang’s bloody reign of terror into a movie. Now, with Scott Cooper’s new gangster epic Black Mass, we finally have our answer.
Whitey wasn’t what anyone would call a handsome man. He had a receding hairline and a predator’s smile marred by a dead tooth that seemed to symbolize the rot emanating from within. So when it was first announced that Johnny Depp would be playing Whitey in the film, there was a cognitive dissonance in the casting choice. But Depp, perhaps sensing that the time had come to step away from flamboyant cartoons like Jack Sparrow and the Mad Hatter and take on something meatier and more adult, tears into Cooper’s absorbing portrait of villainy with sick gusto. From his on-the-money Southie accent to his mottled, ashtray complexion, to his strongman strut, the actor’s really done his homework after playing hooky for what feels like too long.
It’s telling that the first line in Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth’s screenplay is “I’m not a rat.” Although those words aren’t spoken by Whitey himself, but rather by one of his henchmen who’s turned informant, that sentiment of tribal loyalty is the theme of the film – how it’s earned, how it’s honored, and how easily it’s betrayed. The film kicks off in 1975 as Whitey reigns over the insular blue-collar neighborhood of South Boston from behind a black leather jacket and a pair of dark Foster Grants. At the same time, we meet Joel Edgerton’s John Connolly, a kid from those same streets who’s grown up to become an FBI agent charged with cleaning up his old neighborhood. But Connolly’s conflicted. It turns out that when he was a kid, he was once on the receiving end of one of Whitey’s rare good deeds. And even though he’s on the other side of the law now, there’s still an underlying feeling of respect for him. As a wobblier third leg of the table, there’s Benedict Cumberbatch as Whitey’s more legitimate brother, Billy, a state senator who struggles mightily trying to weigh Whitey’s dark deeds and his blood-is-thicker-than-water sense of family loyalty. It’s a fascinating dynamic that could have – and should have – been more fleshed out in the film.
Based on a book by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill, Black Mass chronicles the tangled deal Whitey struck with Connolly to become an FBI informant against their common enemy, Boston’s Italian mafia, in exchange for the bureau turning a blind eye to his own criminal interests from vending machines to dope dealing to jai alai. Needless to say, neither side comes out looking very honorable. After all, as much as Whitey insists that he isn’t a rat, that’s basically what he and his easily-turned lieutenants become. Cooper, the director of Crazy Heart and the underrated Out of the Furnace, has made a tight and tense gangster film with Black Mass. But it’s a pretty straight-ahead entry in the genre, albeit one peppered with spicy performances. It’s satisfying in the way that great mobster movies like Goodfellas, Scarface, and Depp’s own Donnie Brasco are. But Cooper’s working in a genre that’s become so familiar to us that we’re able to see most of his film’s beats coming before they arrive: the hair-trigger outbursts of violence, the whispered-threat monologues, the montages of corruption, and the double crosses that eventually tighten the noose around Connolly and send Whitey on the lam. There’s a scene in the film (one of its best, actually) where Whitey has dinner with Connolly and one of his fellow Feds, and gets the agent to reveal his family’s secret steak sauce recipe with such ease that it’s clear he can’t be trusted. Depp plays the scene to the hilt, purring with menace, grinning that dead-toothed grin until you almost can’t take it anymore. He plays the audience like Toscanini. But when it’s over, you can’t help thinking that, as great as it is, it’s basically Joe Pesci’s “Funny how?” scene from Goodfellas.
That’s Black Mass in a nut shell. It’s a very good film about a very bad man. But as well-crafted and well-acted as it is, it never rises to greatness because we’ve been watching this story in one way or another going back to the time of Jimmy Cagney and Edward G. Robinson. Whitey may now be in good (which is to say, bad) company, but he’s still the same old monster. B