The life of James “Whitey” Bulger is one that reads like the script of a gangster movie. A criminal who spent time in Alcatraz and Leavenworth and participated in MK-Ultra experiments while in an Atlanta penitentiary, Bulger returned home to Boston and proceeded to consolidate power and become one of the biggest crime bosses in the city over the next twenty years. This was in no small part because he became an F.B.I. informant and had some of his competition taken out while the feds turned a blind eye to his criminal activity. When his involvement with the feds and criminal activity were exposed in the local papers, Bulger disappeared like a ghost when the feds finally came after him, resulting in a 16-year manhunt, including being on the F.B.I.’s Ten Most Wanted list for over a decade, before he was finally captured in Santa Monica, CA in 2011. Elements of his story were adopted for Jack Nicholson’s character in Martin Scorsese’s The Departed.
His years as a crime boss in Boston are depicted in Scott Cooper’s Black Mass. Bulger is portrayed by Johnny Depp, a blessing and a curse for the film. While it gives Depp a chance to do some of his best acting in ages and there are fewer eccentricities to Bulger than most of Depp’s recent roles, he still can’t avoid losing himself at times in the makeup and the character to the point of distraction. The result is a mixed bag of a film that is occasionally engaging but constantly drawing attention to Depp’s performance.
Bulger is approached early on in the film by FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton). Growing up in the same neighborhood, Southie ties run deep, and Connolly grew up idolizing Jimmy and his younger brother, state senator Billy Bulger (Benedict Cumberbatch). With a real possibility that a rival gang may try to take out Jimmy, trying to convince him to become an F.B.I. informant. Despite his reservations of being a “rat,” Bulger soon becomes an informant, striking up a relationship with the Bureau that initially starts off as mutual beneficial, but as Jimmy moves more and more unchecked through the Boston crime scene, it becomes more of a one-sided relationship and Connolly and others around him begin to become more and more compromised and more and more corrupt due to their dealings with Jimmy Bulger.
Deep is the star and the centerpiece of this whole thing, even though it is as much Connolly’s story as it is Bulger’s. Depp does give his best performance since Finding Neverland, and despite some noticeable makeup and bad teeth applied, it’s not a character he has to completely disappear into. Most of the time he does play Bulger as the dangerous, simmering gangster that he is, conveying power and danger through thin restraint. However, there are two or three scenes where Depp goes overboard in the performance and is merely playing a menacing boogeyman. As the film progresses, the performance gets a bit bigger and a bit more unrestrained. One scene in particular at a dinner party at the Connolly house feels completely out of tone to everything thing that has come before it, with Jimmy going off the deep end; threatening an F.B.I. agent and sleazily intimidating Connolly’s wife Marianne (Julianne Nicholson).
Too often I couldn’t shake the fact that the film was pointing out that Depp was “ACTING!” in big bold letters and I don’t know if that is the fault of the film or the influence of too many previous Depp performances. It also doesn’t help that the make-up job makes Depp look like a cross between Max Schrek in Nosferatu and Michael Fassbender’s David in Prometheus., particularly as Bulger gets older.
There are, thankfully, quite a few solid supporting performances. Edgerton is his usual, reliable self, though at about the halfway point of the film, when Connolly starts to take a turn, you can actually see him start to walk with swagger, which was a little over the top. Rory Cochrane, W. Earl Brown, and Jesse Plemons portray the main members of Jimmy’s Winter Hill Gang and they all give good performances, though Cochrane’s stands out as the best, as Jimmy’s closest friend, Steve Flemmi, who is conflicted by the idea of his best friend becoming an F.B.I. informant. As the film progresses, Flemmi’s loyalty never seems to waver, despite Jimmy’s cruelty hitting very close to home for him in a scene where Cochrane is great and wears everything on his face. Kevin Bacon, David Harbour, and Adam Scott, and eventually Corey Stoll have supporting roles as fellow F.B.I. agents of Connolly’s, at equal points enthused by the criminals he is taking down with the information provided by Jimmy Bulger and frustrated because Jimmy is increasingly putting Connolly in his back pocket and compromising the Bureau more and more as Connolly makes more and more excuses for him. Peter Sarsgaard is great in a small role as a criminal that Jimmy gets involved with briefly in Florida, and then goes running to the F.B.I. later on, fearful for his life.
One drawback of the casting is the female roles, filled by Dakota Johnson, Juno Temple, and the aforementioned Nicholson. All three give good, limited performances, with Johnson being a real surprise coming off of 50 Shades of Grey as Jimmy’s girlfriend and the mother to his son. Temple is a naïve young woman who is on the fringes of the story until an unfortunate event thrusts her, unknowingly, under Jimmy’s microscope. Nicholson, as Connolly’s wife, sees the deterioration of her husband firsthand and embodies the unease of being around this criminal element that her husband and his co-worker should be feeling. Unfortunately, these female roles only really exist to color in the male characters and are mainly an afterthought or device to either humanize or further demonize them when necessary.
There’s also an odd framing device to telling the story that involves F.B.I. interrogations of Bulger’s former Winter Hill Gang members recounting their stories, which leads you to think that it will be looking at Bulger from the perspective of these men, but this device is employed inconsistently. In fact, the film starts with Plemons talking to the investigators, and we see him in flashback as our entry point into this story, but then he quickly fades into the background.
It’s an interesting story that ends up being told in a largely uninteresting way. And the title is a little too on the nose, with Black Mass having so many meanings (the criminal element in Massachusetts, Bulger as a cancer in the community, connections to Catholicism). It has its moments, with the downfall of Connolly going from someone with good intentions to being consumed and tainted by his association with the criminal underground being particularly well constructed. But the film spends too much time drawing attention to the performance of Depp, to the point of distraction, and it loses its way by the end.
Rating: 2 1/2 out of 5 stars