You have to wait for those eyes to turn upon you to know that, with this film, Johnny Depp has returned. As James ‘Whitey’ Bulger, the most ferocious gangster in South Boston once, he is cruel and merciless, without the now-overbearing tics or mannerisms. Black Mass itself is neither, never really shedding its tone of slightly breathless awe even when all available evidence shows Bulger as nothing but a violent thug.
On a personal level, he is kind to elderly women, a devoted son to his old mother, a loving father to his young son, and a warm brother to his Senator sibling. There is no hint of his one life in the other, and the film suffers as a biopic on account of that.
What you get is a series of incidents from what has been a colourful life, including a string of bloody murders that don’t even convincingly establish what lies at the crux of the tale — the war between Bulger’s Winter Hill gang and the Italian Mafia on the north end of town.
Apart from Bulger and his men, the ‘other guy’ in this story is the FBI. An old Bulger buddy, John Connolly (Edgerton), has arrived as a new, much-anticipated Agent to town. Almost immediately he goes about convincing the Agency to sign up Bulger, a “smaller fry”, as an informant to net the Mafia. His passionate defence of Bulger should raise some eyebrows, but evidently not enough. If that’s not enough, Connolly and his fellow officers discuss this arrangement at shouting volume down open corridors. If the Mafia doesn’t have a man inside too, well it has to be the Mafia’s dumbest move.
Bacon is one of those fellow FBI officers, while the talented Saarsgard and Cochrane are Bulger’s men or allies. However, apart from Bulger and Connolly, we get just cardboard versions of the others by their side. Cumberbatch is Bulger’s Senator brother, who willingly looks the other way. Again, the relationship between the two needs more airing, but Black Mass steers clear of such complex stuff.
Covering the events between 1975 and 1992, Black Mass is essentially about FBI’s arrangement with Bulger that was only used by the latter to further his criminal run. It is told through confessions by several of his crew, now turned approvers. In 1992, with the authorities closing in on him, Bulger had gone on the run, and remained missing till he was captured in 2012.
When it does land its punches well, Black Mass shows what could have been possible. A dinner that freezes cold under Bulger’s creeping menace, first towards a compromised FBI offcer and then Connolly’s wife, is chilling.
You suspect that’s what lies at the heart of the Whitey Bulger legend than his other meal-time homilies: about Vitamin C in freshly pressed juice, and bacteria in shared bowls of peanuts.
Directed by Scott Cooper
Starring Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Kevin Bacon, Corey Stoll, Peter Sarsgaard, Rory Cochrane