Black Mass has been touted on the festival circuit as Johnny Depp’s big comeback film — the one in which he finally takes acting seriously again. But Depp isn’t doing anything different here than he did in Dark Shadows or Alice in Wonderland or the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. Once again, he’s unrecognizable under elaborate makeup and prosthetics, and he speaks with a peculiar voice (this time a thick South Boston accent).
And once again, he’s playing a thinly written character who is all surface. James “Whitey” Bulger is a real person — a murderous Irish-American gangster who spent 12 years on the FBI’s ten most-wanted list and is currently serving two life sentences for an astounding array of crimes — but the way he’s presented in Black Mass, he’s a two-dimensional boogeyman with cold, hard blue eyes, a rotten tooth and a death-pallor complexion. He’s a Halloween costume, a scary monster. But the man inside remains so remote and opaque, he might as well have been stitched together on a slab in Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory, comprised of pieces from more memorable movie gangsters, James Cagney to Joe Pesci.
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Director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart, Out of the Furnace) is so mindful about not turning his period crime saga into a Martin Scorsese imitation that he drains all the style and energy from the movie. This is an unusually somber and talky film about the evil men do, a movie so concerned with not romanticizing its protagonist that it becomes an unfocused, unconvincing slog. It’s too cold and restrained for its own good.
Black Mass opens (and regularly cuts away to) interviews with Bulger’s foot soldiers (including Jesse Plemons and Rory Cochrane) as they spill their guts to detectives about the assignments they carried out for a man who would later betray them. The screenplay, by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth, tries so hard to give us a panoramic view of the South Boston criminal underworld over a span of a decade that it forgets to find a way to carry us through the story.
Too often, Depp is sidelined on the screen by Joel Edgerton’s corrupt FBI agent, who was Bulger’s childhood friend and persuades his bosses (Kevin Bacon and Adam Scott) to strike a shady deal with the killer, using him as a “top echelon” informant to bring down the mafiosos ruling the city’s north in exchange for protection (or at least interference) from any serious criminal charges.
Edgerton’s character, a mass of moral and ethical contradictions, is complex enough to merit his own movie. So is Bulger’s brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch), a powerful politician who was elected president of the Massachussetts State Senate in 1978 yet still maintained relations with his evil sibling. How these two men were born from the same parents is a fascinating question the film simply glosses over: After their elderly mother passes away, Whitey’s heart hardens even further, fueling his rampage of paranoia and murder that gradually becomes psychopathic.
Black Mass delves into Bulger’s various rackets (including a stint dabbling in Miami’s then-burgeoning jai alai scene), but the movie doesn’t show us the mechanics of his crimes: Instead, Cooper focuses on the ways in which Bulger and his crew eliminate any potential rats or eyewitnesses, and they seem to derive a little too much enjoyment out of their wet work. Women play no role in this universe other than to serve as mothers, wives or whores. Dakota Johnson pops up in a couple of scenes as Bulger’s girlfriend, but only as a way to introduce us to his young son, who died at age 6 from an allergic reaction to aspirin.
Despite the film’s attempt at a sweeping depiction of the rise of a neighborhood wise guy into a kingpin told from both sides of the law, Black Mass often feels small and claustrophobic, a repetition of familiar themes without fresh insights (for a much more comprehensive and informative look at Bulger’s life, check out Joe Berlinger’s documentary Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger).
The movie, which has been elegantly shot in a palette of blues and blacks, might have still worked if it had been anchored by a strong lead performance. But Depp never lets us inside Bulger’s head. The actor makes poetry out of endless f-bombs and turns his Southie accent into music, but it all comes off as superficial trickery. He remains hidden behind Bulger’s aviator sunglasses, so we’re left with a clever sadist who takes pleasure in the suffering of others, whether he’s casually taunting a frightened FBI agent over a home-cooked meal or pointlessly threatening another agent’s wife in her own bedroom (to what end?).
Black Mass struggles to find something new to say about organized crime, the loyalty between men and how we can never really leave behind the places in which we’re born. But the only thing the film manages to do is remind us we’ve seen all this stuff done before — and done better. Bulger’s bizarre life might be tailor-made for the movies (Jack Nicholson’s character in The Departed was loosely based on him). But Black Mass is so timid and derivative, so earnest in its attempt to be serious and profound, the film turns him into an ordinary, garden-variety punk, unworthy of all this attention.
Cast: Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dakota Johnson, Kevin Bacon, Peter Sarsgaard, Jesse Plemons, Rory Cochrane, David Harbour, Adam Scott, Corey Stoll, Julianne Nicholson.
Director: Scott Cooper.
Screenwriters: Mark Mallouk, Jez Butterworth.
A Warner Bros. release. Running time: 122 minutes. Vulgar language, violence, gore, strong adult themes. Playing at area theaters.