James “Whitey” Bulger was a real-life bogeyman in Boston during the 1970s and ’80s. A vicious, possible psychotic, and seemingly untouchable criminal kingpin, his name commanded varying degrees of fear and grudging respect among cops and crooks alike.
It is ostensibly an ensemble flick, though so much has been made of Johnny Depp’s performance and appearance as Bulger. While the makeup job is occasionally distracting, it is nevertheless effective, especially as filmed by Carter and cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi. Depp as Bulger often looms over his scenes like some sort of urban ghoul, or the Max Shrek of crime dramas. He also gives his best performance in years.
The story is a complex one with a lot of moving parts, which Carter keeps ticking cleanly along without oversimplifying, although some details could have been fleshed out more. The story begins in 1975, as Bulger makes a push to consolidate his criminal influence in the insular blue collar neighborhood of South Boston. John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) is a rising FBI agent tasked with cleaning up the neighborhood, and as such he’s conflicted: Connolly grew up with Bulger, and blood is thicker than water, even when the two sides of law are involved.
Bulger’s brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch), a squeaky-clean and ambitious state senator, is also conflicted. Connolly tries to have it both ways by striking a deal with Bulger that turned the latter into an informant in order to take down their common enemy, the Italian mafia, while turning a blind eye to Bulger’s own criminal activities. It’s one shaky house of cards, with Connolly lying to himself about the lines he’s crossing, Bulger lying to himself about being a rat, and both lying to everyone around them in order to keep their asses covered.
It’s that last little bit that forms the meat of Black Mass. While the movie is ostensibly a true crime biopic about Bulger and Connolly, it’s the people caught in their wake that are the most compelling aspects – and often bring about the best performances – in the movie.
David Harbour stands out as Connolly’s milquetoast partner, especially during a tense dinner scene late in the film; and Rory Cochrane brings barely checked inner turmoil as Bulger’s right-hand man, Stephen Flemmi, who is arguably more cold-blooded than his boss. Jesse Plemons, Kevin Bacon, Corey Stoll, and Peter Saarsgard shine in smaller and more limited roles; their female counterparts – Dakota Johnson, Julianne Nicholson, and Juno Temple, are given less to do but still wring a lot out of their scenes. (One can’t help but wonder what was left on the editing room floor, especially given that a subplot featuring Sienna Miller as Bulger’s girlfriend was completely excised.)
All that chopping highlights the main – though not fatal – flaw in Black Mass. As with most biographies and true stories put on celluloid, only so much can be folded into a feature-length film. Black Mass represents the middle years of Bulger’s grotesque and complicated story, and boils them down to consumable fare. Details are glossed over and the pacing isn’t always consistent. It’s a familiar formula – most crime movies are these days – but in this instance it’s well-done formula.