In 1975, an ambitious Irish mobster in Boston named James “Whitey” Bulger formed an unholy alliance with an FBI agent named John Connolly. In exchange for informing on South Boston’s fast growing Mafia, Bulger would be given carte blanche for his own activities with the one caveat that he was not to kill anyone. For Bulger, it wasn’t ratting but rather an unbelievable business opportunity with a no kill warning that went in one ear and out the other. For Connolly, it became a nightmare with a monster of his own making that he could not or would not escape. “Black Mass” tells of their alliance in a movie that can’t quite find itself.
On the surface, Bulger (Johnny Depp) is a well known family man who helps out an elderly lady in the neighborhood and plays gin with his mother. Beneath that facade lies a constantly suspicious, easily offended and explosively violent psychopath. Connolly (Joel Edgerton) is a well-intentioned Bostonian with a misguided and obsessive hatred of Italians and loyalty to his home town and boyhood friend. If “Black Mass” had stayed more firmly focused on these two men and their ever downward spiraling relationship, it would have been a better movie.
Instead, it’s a solid though sketchily wide ranging docudrama with a huge cast. Kevin Bacon and an oddly cast Adam Scott are additional FBI agents. Benedict Cumberbatch has an Irish accent that comes and goes in the small and unnecessary role of Bulger’s state senator brother. Dakota Johnson plays Bulger’s wife and, in a grossly smaller and less rewarding role, Julianne Nicholson is Connolly’s wife. Both are ultimately dropped from the story leaving us to wonder how they ultimately weathered their husband’s storms.
Director Scott Cooper lacks any real style of his own and several times mimics Martin Scorsese’s vignette visuals accompanied by period rock music. His opening, which also incorporates character narration, instantly brings the opening of “Casino” to mind. However, this is a straightforward telling of events in which such moments really stick out and disturb the flow. He’s further hampered by a screenplay that removes a lot of tension from the film by opening with testimony from Bulger associates. We know they survive and so have no fear of something about to happen to them in spite of the way things look at times.
The highest marks go to the chilling and transformative performance by Johnny Depp. It takes a hard look to realize that’s him behind his balding and pale faced mask of menace. He exhibits none of his weird mannerisms or eccentricities here and the result is truly unnerving. His dinner table conversation about a steak marinade and subsequent visit to Mrs. Connolly’s bedroom door really get under your skin. Yet try as it might, the rest of the movie just can’t match his intensity.