It’s not often you can say with any confidence that Johnny Depp is a good actor, but Black Mass is a reminder that there’s so much more to him than Jack Sparrow. A grim and slightly dispiriting film, it’s nevertheless engrossing and a cinematic depiction of organised crime that – for once – really doesn’t glamourise it.
James ‘Whitey’ Bulger (Depp) rules the ‘Southy’ area of Boston in the 1970s through charisma and violence, while his brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch) is state senator. Alongside new henchman Kevin Weeks (Jesse Plemons), hitman Johnny Martorano (W. Earl Brown) and right-hand man Stephen Flemmi (Rory Cochrane), Bulger looks to take over the whole city, and when fellow local boy John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) becomes an FBI agent, he plots with Bulger to “clean up” the city… with predictable (real-life) results.
Depp loves to disappear behind make-up and prosthetics, and Bulger is absolutely no exception. You know it’s Johnny Depp, but a disgusting combination of receding hairline, mouldy teeth and piecing blue contacts transform him, accentuating a brilliant performance. Bulger was second only to Osama bin Laden on the US most wanted list, an indication of his crimes – and Depp is chilling, oleaginous and sinister, never giving the audience a second to warm to such a sociopath. At a few points there are hints of vulnerability, of humanity, but they’re quickly washed away, Depp managing to do this in the softening of a glance.
Of the supporting cast, Edgerton is excellent as the corrupt Connolly, whose childhood bond with Bulger forms the crux of their fateful agreement. He cleverly depicts Connolly’s idolisation and fear of Bulger, as well as the character’s gradual fall into corruption, and even his appearance invites suspicion (the actor’s narrow, seedy eyes doing half the job). Appearance is everything with this film, and its desire to present the gangsters of Boston as much like the Italians we know from The Sopranos et al. These are not smoothly-dressed youths, but greasy, fat, pock-marked middle-aged slobs, with all of Bulger’s main men looking more like bar regulars than enforcers, hitmen and hardened criminals.
All three of Bulger’s henchmen form part of a bridging narrative from the time after much of the film’s events have taken place, but I felt they were given short shrift, Cochrane and Plemons (of Breaking Bad) in particular. All three could have been given more to do – especially in terms of where one’s story begins and the other’s starts – but the film’s need to adhere to fact robs the actors of that opportunity. These are men who Bulger has changed, for better or worse, but we don’t get enough of a sense of them as people to give a damn.
Cumberbatch is almost too big a star for this role, but as the younger but very (legally) powerful Bulger, the British actor excellently presents Billy’s duality – particularly in some family scenes with Depp, as well as a confrontation later on, where it seems the Bulgers share an underlying evil streak. Women are poorly served here with only Dakota Johnson, as Bulger’s girlfriend and mother of his child, making much impact. She seems to be the one person who can really get to him, in one emotional scene in particular, but is ignored thereafter. The same goes for good, quick appearances by Juno Temple as an unfortunate prostitute and Julianne Nicholson as Connelly’s doubting, suspicious and (normal) wife, who shares an uncomfortably tense scene with Depp.
There are other famous male actors who appear fleetingly, but form important parts of the story – Peter Sarsgaard’s unpredictable, nervous criminal makes an impression as an unfortunate problem for Bulger, while the FBI is littered with big names. Kevin Bacon and Adam Scott are two of the higher-ups loath to accept Bulger’s help (but nothing more than that – Scott, well known for comedies, may as well have not been in this), while Corey Stoll pops up later on as the crime genre’s stereotypical “incorruptible” saviour. I did however like David Harbour’s corrupt agent John Morris, who seems to be one of the only people capable of having a conscience in Boston, wrestling with the dangerous balancing act of Connolly’s deal.
Taking the film’s look and soundtrack into account, I was reminded of Killing Them Softly, another recent gangster movie that – much like The Sopranos or The Wire – shows American cities for the decrepit, normal places they have been and still can be (as opposed to amazing places filled with opportunity). Boston is a horrible urban nightmare, and director Scott Cooper shoots the film with attention to detail, especially with 70s houses and cars, while the music (for once) is not dominated by the Rolling Stones or period pieces. Instead, the soundtrack from Junkie XL/Tom Holkenborg is a sinister, everpresent classical backing, though it’s pretty forgettable and repetitive.
Overall, Black Mass is a welcome look at an area of American organised crime that (The Departed apart) is rarely depicted on film or known about. Bulger is an awful human being (he’s currently in jail and will die there), and Johnny Depp (and a good supporting cast) brings some acting class. What holds this film back is that it needs to fit in with history – and that means that a lot of the character development is amiss. Some more dramatic license (and involving the women in his life a lot more) would have improved it, for sure.