With Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Kevin Bacon, Peter Sarsgaard. Written by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth. Directed by Scott Cooper. Rated R for brutal violence, language throughout, some sexual references and brief drug use. 122 minutes.
BLACK MASS is a dramatization of the criminal career of James “Whitey” Bulger, now behind bars after his conviction for his part in several murders. For a period of time in the ‘70s and ‘80s, he was not only one of the major crime kingpins in Boston, he was also an FBI informer. His relationship with agent John Connolly, a childhood friend from South Boston, is at the core of the story.
The FBI office in Boston was hot to take down the local Mafia family, based in the North End, but had no leads, even as to where they were headquartered. Connolly made a deal with Bulger. In exchange for information about the Mafia, Connolly would see that Bulger was “protected.” It is a deal with the devil. Bulger does eventually provide key information but–according to the film–most of it was recycled material from other informants that Connolly attributed to Bulger. Meanwhile, Bulger engages in brutal murders, racketeering, drug trafficking, and even an attempt at arms running to Northern Ireland.
As portrayed by Johnny Depp, Bulger is cold-blooded and vicious. He can be calm and even charming, but it’s a veneer. In one scene he accepts an underling’s apology and while they shake hands plugs him between the eyes. Depp’s work here is the best he’s done in years, and may remind you of the time–pre-Captain Jack Sparrow–when he was thought to be one of the best actors there was, period.
The other key performance here is Joel Edgerton’s as Connolly. His take on Connolly is weasel-like, looking to use his connection to Bulger to advance his own career, with the bond between the two of them trumping everything else. Even his wife Marianne (Julianne Nicholson) starts to get creeped out by Bulger which leads to a scene where–without raising his voice–the gangster seems to be threatening her.
The odd casting choice is that of Benedict Cumberbatch as former state Senate President William “Billy” Bulger. The story of two brothers, one of whom became one of the most powerful politicians in the state and the other one of its most notorious gangsters, has always fascinated, but not very much of it is made here. Why the tall British actor was cast as the famously short Irish-American politician is a mystery. It may play in most of the country but local viewers who remember him will find it at least a bit jarring.
As this is based on a well-documented story, “Black Mass” lacks the romance and melodrama of other gangster films, but that works here. We might find, say, Michael Corleone, an engaging figure in “The Godfather” movies. Here, Whitey may have some charming moments, but for the most part what we notice are his dead eyes and humorless smile. This is a violent film about a criminally evil person who killed or corrupted almost everyone around him. Depp’s portrayal of him makes this one not to miss.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His most recent book is “Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide.” He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.