James “Whitey” Bulger terrorized Boston as the boss of the Winter Hill Gang from the 1970s until the 1990s, went into hiding in 1994, fell into FBI custody in 2011, and now, thanks to filmmaker Scott Cooper, he’s stalking multiplexes in the gangster film Black Mass. For Cooper, the movie marks his third plum gig after Hollywood started inexplicably handing him opportunities to work with great contemporary actors in 2009 with Crazy Heart, and then again in 2013’s Out of the Furnace. For Johnny Depp, playing Bulger himself, the project offers redemption after years’ ridicule accrued from his self-caricaturization in a series of questionable career choices.
For everyone else, Black Mass will mean either nothing or everything. Judging by the Boston area premiere, where the red carpet rolled out for the stars, industry hobnobs and Patriots royalty, the film holds more heft for local viewers, in a local context. If you grew up hearing about Bulger’s bloody legend, watching Depp menace his cast members will provide a kind of naughty, visceral thrill, the same sort of delighting fear we experience in the telling of ghost stories. You may also tune in to the film’s exploitative vibrations before feeling a cathartic hum by the time it all comes to an end. Is basing a crime thriller around the activities of Boston’s most notorious mobster a violation of ethical niceties? Should Hollywood turn Bulger into entertainment?
Truthfully, Hollywood already did, way back in 2006 with The Departed, in which Martin Scorsese made a run at making a commercially viable imitation of a Martin Scorsese picture. But that movie relies on shades of reality, where Black Mass lays reality all over its surface. If you aren’t native to the city, the dilemma of immortalizing Bulger through direct reenactment of his misdeeds probably adds up to a whole lot of nothing. For Bostonians, Bulger is their Jack the Ripper. He’s a figure to be remembered more than memorialized.
To Cooper’s credit, he gets that. He understands that buying into the Bulger myth—that Whitey was to South Boston what Robin Hood was to Sherwood Forest, until cops started digging up corpses—is dramatically tempting but morally tasteless. So he poses Bulger as an unapologetic criminal in phases, each framed by interrogation room testimonials of his comrades, while Depp screams “evil incarnate” through his portrayal. If Black Mass occasionally flirts with the notion that the FBI is guiltier than Bulger, Depp makes sure that nobody forgets the awful truth: Bulger is a monster, no matter how much the FBI facilitated his wrongdoing. Who needs a boogeyman? Boston parents should just tell their kids nighttime stories about the Johnny Depp in their closet. His balding, sunken visage suggests a man who bakes children into pies when he’s not burying people by the Neponset River.
But praising the film for deciding not to celebrate Bulger is like giving Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Downfall props for not celebrating Hitler. Instead, Black Mass nestles the hero worship one man has for Bulger within its narrative engine. Bulger didn’t murder 11 people and run the lion’s share of Boston’s criminal enterprises without help, after all: He had a hand from John Connolly, the overeager and appallingly unscrupulous FBI special agent who brought Bulger on as an agency informant and in doing so gave him the power to carry out his vicious business with impunity. Connolly, as played by Joel Edgerton, looks up to Bulger like 10-year-olds look up to Spider-Man. He’s almost a good foil for Depp, except that Depp does uniformly great work, easily his best in years, while Edgerton mugs.
In fairness, Edgerton is guided by Cooper’s hand and Jez Butterworth and Mark Mallouk’s script, and like so many other movies set in Bahston, their concept of the provincial dialect boils down to clichés: drop your Rs, speak through your nose at two octaves higher than normal, and communicate primarily by saying “fuck.” Edgerton leans hard into the accent and sounds like a clown. So does Benedict Cumberbatch, playing Bulger’s straight-arrow politician brother, Billy, but the film doesn’t half-revolve around him. Everyone else, Depp included, merely infuses their own speech with Boston’s. (Julianne Nicholson, who shines in her brief role as Connolly’s long-suffering wife, comes out ahead of them all.) The results verge on silly, but they don’t trip over the line of embarrassment.
Fortunately, Edgerton is buffered by better actors, from Nicholson to Kevin Bacon and Corey Stoll and, most of all, to Depp, who keeps us held firm in his gravitational pull despite being positioned as a secondary character in his own film. Black Mass’s plot forms from the emotional tugging between him and Edgerton, and like any biopic, it must commit crimes of omission in service to its running time. But the film doesn’t need to put decades of wrongdoing on the screen: It needs to find a compelling reason for being in the first place.
As gangster flicks go, Black Mass is made competently enough to sustain tension and hold our interest. The violence shocks us, and the lead-in to that violence is consistently chilling. Cooper’s gifts as a director are limited in the extreme. We can smell the buildup to an inevitable gunshot to the head or brutal strangulation. It’s a testament to whatever skill Cooper does have, then, that even if we can sense these moments coming, they still jolt us—but to what end? To resuscitate Depp’s status as a respectable actor? To remind us of a shameful moment in the history of Boston’s law enforcement? Black Mass says nothing new about its genre, nothing we didn’t already know about its subject (if, that is, you assume most of what it has to say is authentic), and lacks the cultural yen to leave a lasting impression outside of Boston’s rough embrace.
Director: Scott Cooper
Writers: Jez Butterworth, Mark Mallouk
Starring: Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Julianne Nicholson, Corey Stoll, David Harbour, Rory Cochrane, Dakota Johnson, Kevin Bacon, Adam Scott, Juno Temple
Release Date: September 18, 2015
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing online about film since 2009, and has been scribbling for Paste Magazine since 2013. He also contributes to Screen Rant, Movie Mezzanine, and Badass Digest. You can follow him on Twitter. He is composed of roughly 65 percent Vermont craft brews.