Black Mass

Posted by Joel Copling on September 18, 2015

There's something in the icy, blue-eyed stare with which James "Whitey" Bulger, called "Jimmy" by anybody who's anybody, stares down his quarry, reluctant to soften for his wife, son, brother, or even mother, that fully comes to a head late in "Black Mass." In it, Bulger (played here by Johnny Depp in a performance of cool, cautious, calculating confidence) eats a dinner at which John Morris (David Harbour), special agent for the F.B.I., is also present. Bulger asks about the marinade in a particularly delicious steak, and Morris replies that it's a family secret. Bulger presses the man, who relents with the recipe fairly easily. This sparks an extended speech about loyalty from Bulger--until he laughs it off and at Morris' humiliation. "It's a recipe," he says. He doesn't care. It's a tense sequence on the surface, but the placement and punchline of the scene are fairly telling about what this film is missing.

The point of the scene, of course, is to highlight just how difficult it is to crack "Whitey" Bulger. The screenplay by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth (based on a book by Dick Lehr and Gerard O'Neill) unfortunately falls short on this order, failing to get at the essence of the man despite valiant efforts to give us an account of the ten years during which Bulger acted as a sort-of-but-not-officially informant for the Feds. This is the gangster saga as a CliffsNotes-level biopic, merely hitting the major events with minimal conceptual ambition (though director Scott Cooper and cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi take magnificent advantage of the Boston area in which these men live, kill, and operate their business).

We get the initial approach from another FBI agent, John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), to enter a mutual relationship (an "alliance," as he labels it) with Bulger, with whom Connolly grew up in South Boston. In exchange for information from Bulger, Connolly will grant him eternal immunity from his crimes (which are far and wide, aided and abetted by a series of henchmen played by Jesse Plemons, Rory Cochrane, and W. Earl Brown). The relationship steadily spirals into one that corrupts Connolly, who values loyalty to family (specifically of the non-blood-related kind) over loyalty to his country and his profession. We get a better sense of Connolly's ideas of honor and fraternity, and that might be due in large part to Edgerton's complex, sympathetic performance.

There are also glimpses of Bulger's home life, which is less tumultuous than one might expect from a gangster with a penchant for brutality. He has a wife, Lindsay (Dakota Johnson), and a son who dies from an adverse reaction to flu medicine. His mother passes away not even year after this. His brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch, sporting some sort of accent, although I'm not entirely sure anyone knows from where it hails) is the most powerful politican in the city, his hands tied by familial loyalty (and, likely, some form of conflict of interest) despite definite knowledge of his big brother's activities. These half-hearted attempts to humanize Bulger might have worked better if there was less of a focus on simply stringing the events along like a factory line.

Unfortunately they are as much a mark in the timeline as pretty much everything else here, such as the series of eleven murders for which Bulger was finally sentenced in 2011 (none of which is given the scope or weight to leave an impact, except for one in which Bulger personally takes part) or the details involving Connolly's personal life (such as an exhausted and drained wife played by a terrific Julianne Nicholson) and professional erosion (Separate F.B.I. officials, played by the likes of Kevin Bacon, Adam Scott, and Corey Stoll, must navigate the investigative difficulties Connolly puts in their path). "Black Mass" tells a tragic story with an air of dry obligation beneath the surface.

Film Information

Johnny Depp (James "Whitey" Bulger), Joel Edgerton (John Connolly), Benedict Cumberbatch (Billy Bulger), Dakota Johnson (Lindsey Cyr), David Harbour (John Morris), Kevin Bacon (Charles McGuire), Peter Sarsgaard (Brian Halloran), Jesse Plemons (Kevin Weeks), Rory Cochrane (Steve Flemmi), Adam Scott (Robert Fitzpatrick), Corey Stoll (Frank Wyshak), Julianne Nicholson (Marianne Connolly), W. Earl Brown (John Martorano).

Directed by Scott Cooper and written by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth, based on the book by Dick Lehr and Gerard O'Neill.

Rated R (brutal violence, language throughout, sexual references, brief drug use).

122 minutes.

Released on September 18, 2015.