For those who lived in or grew up in and around Boston anytime from the ‘70s through the ‘90s, the name “Whitey Bulger,” the city’s most vicious and powerful crime lord, still packs powerful mojo. Some people hear that name today and make the sign of the cross. Some spit on the sidewalk. Others talk about how Whitey bailed them out financially asking nothing in return. For years, mothers put the fear of god into bratty kids by warning, “Whitey will get you if you don’t watch out.” Some folks will look you straight in the eye and swear that he wasn’t guilty of, say, killing at least 19 people including a young woman he strangled barehanded, staging drive-by machine gun executions, designating his own unofficial burial ground for enemies under the Neponset River Bridge, puncturing a man 38 times with an ice pick, illegal gambling, and extortion. It all culminated in him making a sweetheart backroom deal with the FBI and being allowed to shamelessly game that agency while its heads looked the other way and let Bulger’s crimes continue.
Bulger, a sociopathic, utterly self-centered monster, has previously been fictionalized on film in The Departed(Jack Nicholson’s Frank Costello) and was front and center in the 2014 documentary Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger. Now, Johnny Depp plays him in Black Mass, directed by Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart) from a script credited to Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth. The gifted Cooper himself has said that he “wanted to make a film about humans who just happen to be criminals,” a film with “an emotional core.” And, agree or not with his approach, he has. Black Mass does its best to find the man behind the beast.
The filmmaker set the film in 1975 in South Boston when Bulger is a guy trying to survive a messed-up family life, a distraught father who nearly loses his mind when his six-year-old son with girlfriend Lindsey Cyr (nicely played by Dakota Johnson) dies of a rare disease, a man who can be generous to neighborhood widows and orphans. He’s also a stony cold killer and it’s exhilarating to see Depp finally coming on all ruthless and vulpine, even if the film soft peddles the bloodletting, bullet-spraying, and bone-crunching. Even slathered in makeup, a wig with a receding hairline, and wolf contacts that less resemble Bulger than a vampire from another planet, Depp delivers the goods in a sly, funny, malevolent and satisfying performance that is his best since the highs of Edward Scissorhands and Donnie Brasco. He’s especially coiled-up, creepy and sensational in hugely uncomfortable scenes of dominance and violence featuring Julianne Nicholson (as the wife of his FBI contact) and Johnson.
But Black Mass is a long, richly detailed film that cries out for conflict, constant build, and new character revelations and the exploration of Bulger only goes so far and deep. It’s Joel Edgerton as John Connolly, Bulger’s childhood friend and deeply compromised F.B.I. contact, who goes quietly and stealthily for the jugular and scores another of the movie’s knockout performances right alongside Depp’s. And Edgerton’s tight, working class Boston accent’s right on the money. Benedict Cumberbatch, too, is terrific as Bulger’s brother William, a.k.a. “Billy,” the smooth, proper, Kennedy wannabe with the carefully-cultivated Back Bay purr, who served for 18 years as the President of the Massachusetts Senate and who may or may not have aided and abetted his brother’s escape from prison. Jessie Plemons as one of Whitey’s young associates, Peter Sarsgaard as a junkie informant, and Corey Stoll as a crusading attorney make meals out of every moment they’re in. You can feel director Cooper knowing how great they are and letting them grab their moments.
The women’s roles are smaller (Sienna Miller’s role as the woman who spent 16 years with Bulger, some of them fugitive, has been entirely cut) but the work of Nicholson, Johnson, and Juno Temple (as one of Bulger’s most vulnerable victims) standout. Cooper, aided and abetted by the screenwriters, has cherry-picked a massive story well documented by Dick Lehr and Gerald O’Neill in their 2000 book Black Mass: The Irish Mob, The FBI, and A Devil’s Deal. He’s made an intelligent, griping film that reeks of the real Southie and of Boston’s particular brand of corruption and deceit and he, and Depp, have made a persuasive case for Bulger’s complexities, self-absorption, and contradictions.
Sure, a moment or two in those Black Mass trailers may evoke memories of Joe Pesci’s explosive “You think I’m funny?” aria from Goodfellas and although another Scorsese-directed flick, The Departed, foreshadows it, but this is a much different sort of animal and a far different portrayal of Bulger than Jack Nicholson’s unstrung underworld showboat. More in the Sidney Lumet, Prince of the City groove, Black Mass is rarely flashy. And that may be a letdown for some. It’s a solid thing — a gritty, beautifully detailed, get-under-your skin slow burn — but not a mow-you-down masterpiece. But it deserves the respect it’s likely to get come award nominations time.