By Jack Ryan, Senior Staff Writer
Whitey Bulger, former boss of the notorious South Boston Winter Hill Gang, was many things: a violent murderer, a grief-stricken soul, a conniving businessman, and even a caring brother and son. Above all, he was an influence, in the eyes of his friends, community and government, leaving dark footprints in each life he trod through.
What “Black Mass” sets out to achieve is not a deep examination of just one of these personas, but rather a superficial scan over every aspect of this mythic criminal.
This broad overview of Whitey Bulger (expertly portrayed by Johnny Depp) is mainly achieved through the film’s frame story. Over the course of the film, we see each of Bulger’s associates testify against their former boss, while their stories unfold onscreen. This allows for a collective characterization of Bulger, teaching us all we want to know about him, while also keeping us at arm’s length from any true emotional center.
Like many gangster films before it, “Black Mass” is a movie about corruption. The narrative mainly follows Bulger’s affiliation with the FBI through Special Agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton). Their “alliance” is simple: Bulger provides information about the local Italian mob in exchange for protection from the FBI. However, it quickly becomes clear that it is more of a one-sided affair, in Bulger’s favor.
What ensues is equal parts biopic and crime procedural, with a steady balance of the FBI’s in-office affairs and the street workings of the Winter Hill Gang. Where “Black Mass” sets itself apart is in its equal examination of Bulger’s personal and professional life. We see Bulger hurt and be hurt, and it becomes clear how much of an impact personal losses have on his emotions and, consequently, his work.
Johnny Depp’s performance as Bulger is not only the highlight of “Black Mass,” but it is also the best performance he’s given since “Sweeney Todd,” and undoubtedly puts him into early Oscar conversations. Depp manages to skillfully combine the innate anger of a notorious mobster and the bleak, depressive qualities of a bereaving man into a ghoulish being whose dark interior harshly contrasts with his pale white countenance. Just look at him on the posters for this film — he looks inhuman.
The remainder of the star-studded cast put on considerable performances as well.
Edgerton oozes ambition and arrogance as a special agent craving respect and prestige. Benedict Cumberbatch has a fine performance as Billy Bulger, Whitey’s state senator brother, and creates an interesting family dynamic for the film. Adam Scott and Kevin Bacon play FBI agents who clash well with Connolly and give some much needed, albeit brief, atmosphere to the federal office. The extensive crew and affiliates of the Winter Hill Gang (Jesse Plemons, Peter Sarsgaard, and Rory Cochrane, amongst others) all emit initial stoicism before revealing their characters’ true emotion in their testimonies.
“Black Mass” is handled adequately by its director Scott Cooper (“Out of the Furnace,” “Crazy Heart”), who juggles the various sides of Bulger’s life with care and creates a few extremely memorable sequences — a dinner scene about a “secret family recipe” carries the terrifying humor of the iconic “You think I’m funny?” scene from “Goodfellas.” The violence is also handled very well in “Black Mass,” feeling brutally real, and never taking the guise of a gimmick or crowd-pleaser.
“Black Mass” does have its fair share of issues, however. Although it is heavily thematic, Whitey’s makeup feels a bit over the top. Cumberbatch’s Boston accent isn’t bad, but it certainly isn’t what you’d expect from someone born and raised in the depths of Beantown.
The biggest conflict with “Black Mass” rests in Cooper’s questionable use of its vast ensemble cast. It is clear that the film is constructing a collage of Bulger from multiple different viewpoints, but sometimes seemingly major characters will disappear for years, only to randomly reappear back in a car with Whitey. While this promotes the thin mortality of the characters, it can be a bit jarring to have characters floating in and out of importance.
“Black Mass” continues to build toward a climax that never really happens, leading to a conclusion that is solid, but not perfect by any means. Whitey Bulger’s story was one that needed to be told, and while “Black Mass” sports a wonderfully grim lead performance by Depp, a strong cast and some memorable moments, at times it feels mishandled and is, by no means, essential viewing.