James “Whitey” Bulger already inspired some of the best crime fiction of the twenty-first century. There’s The Departed, Martin Scorsese’s remake of Infernal Affairs with Jack Nicholson in the Bulger role, and there’s the criminally underrated Showtime series Brotherhood with Jason Isaacs as a facsimile of the notorious gangster. What distinguishes The Departed and Brotherhood is curiosity about what drives its characters, as well as a sense of humor. The Bulger biopic Black Mass has neither. Serious to a fault and directed without any energy or imagination, Black Mass somehow still has decent performances and a handful of good scenes. Beyond that, it will be easy to forget.
The screenplay by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth frames the story of Jimmy Bulger (Johnny Depp) with three on-the-record depositions. We learn from his top lieutenants (Jesse Plemons, W. Earl Brown, and Rory Cochrane) how the Winter Hill Gang rose from South Boston and took over crime within the entire city. The key to the gang’s success is John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), an FBI agent who used his childhood friendship with Jimmy to turn him into a criminal informant. Thanks to Jimmy’s information, the FBI is able to arrest Boston’s Italian gangsters, and Jimmy rises to prominence in the subsequent fallout. Already unhinged, success turns Jimmy into a paranoid, violent monster, although his relationship with his politician brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch) helps maintain some veneer of sanity. The murders and cover-ups grow increasingly egregious, so John has no choice but to cover Jimmy’s mistakes.
While Johnny Depp is the biggest name in this impressive cast, director Scott Cooper could have gotten more mileage with less Depp screen-time. Black Mass suffers from a tedious perspective: Jimmy is in most of the scenes, to the point where his violent nature lacks any menace. The screenplay would work better if it approached the material as an outsider, whether it’s from John or the journalists who would eventually connect Jimmy to the FBI. Cooper references several classic gangster films – many scenes explicitly recall The Godfather – but he should have looked to The Untouchables for inspiration, which kept Al Capone in the background. As a character who is more talked about than he is seen, Capone develops a reputation within the film, one that Robert DeNiro’s performance confirms. Black Mass over-serves its monster. By the time Cooper films Jimmy’s third grisly murder, we already get the point.
There are exactly two good scenes in Black Mass. The first one involves Dakota Johnson, who plays the mother of Jimmy’s son. The child has a terrible disease, and Johnson’s character chews out Jimmy for treating him with inhumanity. It’s the only time in the movie where anyone gets away with yelling at Jimmy, and it works because Depp conflates grief with anger. The second good scene is a riff on Goodfellas: in a sit-down with John and another FBI agent, Jimmy veers between jokes and intense verbal intimidation. In both examples, Depp and the others are given room to breathe. The best mob movies, including Goodfellas, work as hangout movies: on one level, anyway, it’s fun to spend time with these criminals. Black Mass has little interest for details or minutiae, so the actors are given the unenviable task of bland, expository dialogue. The f-bombs, which are frequent, cannot cover up the lazy screenwriting.
Speaking of f-bombs, the dialogue is the only thing that distinguishes Depp’s performance from his Tim Burton roles. Like Alice and Wonderland, Black Mass features Depp under make-up and contact lenses, and the character is a mash of eccentricities instead of a cohesive personality. Donnie Brasco, Depp’s other gangster movie, has thoughtful arcs for its characters, even its minor ones. Jimmy is relatively one-note, and so are the supporting players of his life. Edgerton, who deserves better, gives an embarrassing performance as John Connolly. He returns to the same toothless back-story, without much opportunity to panic, so we root against him only because the character is annoying. The best performance in Black Mass belongs to Rory Cochrane, who plays one of Jimmy’s underlings. Cochrane has some incredible non-verbal acting, and his eyes serve as the only clear understanding of Jimmy’s true nature. There are plenty of other actors in the ensemble, including Adam Scott in a pointless role and Corey Stoll as a beleaguered prosecutor, yet they’re mostly perfunctory. If nothing else, Black Mass is a showcase of bad Boston accents (for those keeping count, Cumberbatch’s is the worst).
You may have noticed that this review mention lots of other gangster movies, plus Alice in Wonderland. That’s because, well, it’s more fun to think about those other movies than it is to think about Black Mass. Everything about Black Mass is fine and respectable, except for maybe Cooper’s uninspired direction, which has little sense of composition or surprise. Every on-screen death – and there are many – is shot so the audience sees it coming from a mile away. There is no horror here, nor is there any relief when law enforcement finally restores a sense of justice. Black Mass is a two hour list of Whitey Bulger doing terrible things, while everyone around him tolerates it. There is a good film that could be made about his story, but Jimmy is not the star of it. Others helped him become a notorious monster, and Black Mass should have examined their tolerance of his horrible crimes.