It’s almost a running gag that Johnny Depp has built a career out of playing loopy characters with weird things on their heads. Despite being less a fantasy and more a taut Boston gangland thriller, Black Mass doesn’t seem to be the movie where he breaks with tradition.
That’s not to say his performance ruins the film or anything, but it does seem to come from a completely different movie than everyone else’s. Director Scott Cooper sets much the same bleak, desperate tone he did in Out of the Furnace, replacing today’s post-industrial Delaware River valley with the South Boston projects from the ’70s and ’80s. But where Woody Harrelson’s character was a brutal near-warlord of his region, Depp’s rendition of James “Whitey” Bulger is at times barely recognizable as human.
Maybe the real Jimmy Bulger was every bit as monstrous as the one Depp portrays. I mostly knew the outlines: the head of the small South Boston based Winter Hill Gang grew to become a Boston kingpin. Before he dropped off the map in 1994, he’d expanded from his start running numbers rackets and protection all the way to international arms trafficking in support of the IRA.
The movie, though, seems less about the rise of Bulger’s criminal enterprise and more about his particular relationship with FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton). Connolly came up from the same Southie streets as Bulger and his little brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch), who by the late ’70s became the President of the Massachusetts State Senate. When he moved into the Boston office, they were mostly interested in cleaning the Mafia out of the North End. Connolly sold his boss (Kevin Bacon) on the idea of using Bulger as an informant, though in the long run he and fellow agent John Morris (David Harbour) worked more for Bulger than the other way around.
Indeed, we don’t really see much about the Winter Hill Gang expanding in Boston. Mostly we hear people describing the result. When the old U.S. Attorney is promoted out of Boston after taking down the Angiulo family, his replacement (Corey Stoll) complains that everyone knows Bulger is in charge of the city, but all the FBI’s investigations stall out. But we’ve never really seen the usual plotting and counter-plotting we’d expect from a cinematic gang war; it’s just a fait accompli. The same goes for Bulger’s corruption of World Jai Alai in Florida.
What we do get is the progressive corruption of Connolly and the strain it puts on his relationship with his wife, Marianne (Julianne Nicholson). Bulger’s character has less of an evolution and more of a revelation; as if once the people he cared about — his son and his mother, most prominently — fell away he could exhibit his monstrous tendencies more freely.
From the start, Cooper dresses Deep like a grown-up extra from Rebel Without a Cause, all slicked-back hair and black leather jacket. But as time goes on, cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi shoots his closeups in a sick, yellow light, even more so than the slight tinge on the rest of the film. Bulger’s blue eyes — already strange from what are likely contacts to cover Depp’s dark brown pair — pop from his sallow face. He looks more like a snake or a demon than a man.
That’s the real story here: Jimmy Bulger is the devil, and John Connolly made a deal with him. Cooper isn’t trying to understand evil so much as he’s looking at what happens when people think evil is something they can tame or control to put to good purposes. It doesn’t end well.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.