It’s tempting to rise above civic subjectivity and try to review “Black Mass” as if it were any other crime movie about any other criminal from any other city. But that’s impossible. For worse and for worser, James “Whitey” Bulger is a son of Boston, and moviegoers here will react differently to Scott Cooper’s film than they will in Seattle, Dallas, or Dubuque. For one thing, he’s our rat bastard and no one else’s. For another, we’re sick to death of hearing about him.
In other words, no one here is inclined to celebrate Whitey Bulger. Thankfully, neither is “Black Mass,” which screenwriters Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth have adapted from the book of that title by former Boston Globe reporter Dick Lehr and Spotlight Team editor Gerard O’Neill.
It’s a solid if not stellar crime drama, well put together, very well acted, and lacking only a genuine reason to exist. If you’re not from around here, it may play better than that sounds. But we need special convincing, don’t we? And “Black Mass” is heavily invested in presenting Whitey as Satan from Southie, a figure of almost biblical evil. Without that heft — without the legend — there’d be no movie. Would anyone be interested in a small-time sociopath?
Of course not, and so the murderer with mystique is played by a movie star with mystique; a star who, incidentally, knows a life rope when he sees one. Johnny Depp is coming off a long career slump — quite simply, he has seemed bored — but his performance here is contained and focused, lacking in the louche decadence of recent parts.
Some of it is hair and makeup, a graveyard of prosthetic teeth and a receding hairline that’s more convincing than it looked in on-set photographs. But most of the strength of Depp’s Jimmy Bulger is in the minimalist chill of a man who knows his reputation precedes him by many city blocks and that all he needs to keep things running smoothly is the occasional application of grievous bodily harm. He’s the veiled threat and then the bloody aftermath; the violence itself passes so quickly you almost miss it. In fact, everything’s fine about the performance except the absurd zombie contact lenses the actor has been fitted with in an effort to convey Bulger’s ice-blue eyes. The effect is to make Whitey seem actively demonic, as if Depp were about to go the full Pacino in “The Devil’s Advocate.”
Ironically, Jimmy Bulger — the movie makes sure we know that “Whitey” is not a favored nickname — isn’t all that central to the story that “Black Mass” tells. Cooper and his writers find their dramatic motor in the rise and fall of John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), the FBI agent who grew up in the South Boston projects and who, in this version, worships Whitey so much that he brings him in as a federal informant to rat on the North End mafia. “It’s a business opportunity,” Bulger croaks to criminal associate Steve Flemmi (Rory Cochrane), and “Black Mass” sticks to the defense playbook that Whitey may have murdered with impunity and hooked neighborhood kids on drugs but he never, you know, sold anyone out.
Edgerton (“The Great Gatsby,” “The Gift”) unshowily holds the movie’s center as Connolly, acing the accent and, more crucially, conveying the character’s unarticulated ache to impress his “top echelon informant.” One of Connolly’s fellow agents asks him, “Do you [expletives] from Southie have some kind of sick [expletive] love for each other?” But the movie implies Connolly is acting out something other than a repressed crush: It’s the need of a bullied child in a tough neighborhood who looks to the biggest, meanest kid to protect and define him.
Maybe so, and maybe not; this is Hollywood, remember. The scenes with Connolly provide the narrative momentum in “Black Mass,” while the scenes with Whitey are exercises in mayhem, collapsing and remixing the historical record to fit a two-hour running time while not caring too much about the victims. Deborah Hussey (Juno Temple), the Flemmi girlfriend who knew too much, is dispatched by Bulger after one scene and some offscreen gurgles; Michael Donahue (Patrick M. Walsh), who gave a ride to Bulger target Brian Halloran (Peter Sarsgaard) and died for it, gets even less screen time. But who remembers the dead in gangster movies?
Sarsgaard grovels amusingly as Halloran, and Cochrane — hard to believe he was once Slater the stoner in “Dazed and Confused” — is a convincingly conflicted lug as Flemmi. The other mooks — Jesse Plemons as Kevin Weeks, W. Earl Brown as hitman John Martorano, Bill Camp as doomed World Jai Alai president John Callahan — are sketched with street-level realism rather than mob-movie bravado. The women have little to do but flinch or die: Temple’s Hussey; Dakota Johnson as the mother of Bulger’s young son; Medford native Julianne Nicholson, excellent as Marianne Connolly, even with a cooked-up scene where Whitey menacingly puts his hands around her throat. Cathy Greig, Bulger’s latter-day girlfriend and fellow fugitive, doesn’t even make it into the movie, despite scenes that were shot with actress Sienna Miller.
And who’s that in the movie’s corner? Why, it’s Benedict Cumberbatch as William Bulger, president of the state Senate, president of the University of Massachusetts (not “chancellor,” as he’s called here), and brother of Whitey. Cumberbatch is always entertaining to watch, and here he does passing strange things with a Boston accent — although I have a co-worker who swears that’s the way Billy Bulger actually talks — and does a politic soft-shoe around his criminal brother even as the movie does a politic soft-shoe around him.
“Black Mass” gets Boston reasonably right — the brick of the North End versus the clapboards of Southie — although it gets a few things wrong as well: Since when have the FBI’s offices been located in City Hall or the Mystic River Bridge been visible from the banks of the Neponset? More problematically, the movie gives short shrift to the social canvas that’s specific to this town, that can create a Jimmy Bulger (and a Billy Bulger) in hermetically sealed enclaves of class and clan and poverty and potential.
What made Whitey? “Black Mass” has no interest in explaining him, other than brief scenes in which the criminal chats up a little old lady or plays a game of Gin with his old cheat of a mother (Mary Klug). We’re reminded that Whitey took loads of LSD as part of a prison experiment, but we never learn what, if any, effect it had.
He’s just this movie’s bogeyman. At least Depp’s good at the job.
“A lot of people in Southie loved Jimmy,” Plemons’s Weeks says on the soundtrack, and the movie lets the statement go unchallenged because the myth sells better than the complicated reality. “Black Mass” cements the cartoon version of Whitey Bulger as Boston’s bête noire for the rest of the country and the perpetuity of popular culture, but it doesn’t tell us anything we don’t know and it leaves out a lot we do. The movie’s good enough that you should see it if you want to. But you don’t have to, and, in these parts, that matters.
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Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the actress who played Mom Bulger. It is Mary Klug.