Warner Bros. Pictures
2 hours, 2 minutes
I remember hearing the name Whitey Bulger a few years ago in the news. It’s one of those names that sounds familiar, but also like something you heard from a movie, so I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to know who the guy was or not. Suffice it to say I didn’t pay it much attention — just another lowlife getting busted in some faraway city. Not much of a story there, right?
Wow, was I wrong. This week’s Boston mafia drama, “Black Mass,” chronicles, in sometimes harrowing detail, the rise and fall of one of the cities most notorious, real-life criminals.
Though the film is ostensibly about Whitey Bulger, and Johnny Depp’s frightening portrayal makes it hard to look away, the story is also centered on an FBI agent named John Connolly, a childhood friend of Bulger’s, and the man whose job it should have been to take him down.
As the film opens, Connolly is new to the Bureau and Bulger is a small-time operator, head of the Winter Hill Gang, a handful of thugs working out of South Boston. Tasked with eliminating the larger, potentially more dangerous Italian mafia in North Boston, Connolly approaches his old friend and asks for something unprecedented: an alliance. Instead of calling him an informant — the lowest of the low among underworld types, Bulger would be considered a partner in the removal of the Cosa Nostra, thereby eliminating his major competition.
In return for his help, Connolly and Co. would turn a blind eye to the “small-time” activities of the Winter Hill Gang. Little does anyone know that Bulger has no intention of staying small for long, and with all the police attention on the Italians, there’s nothing to keep him from taking the city by storm.
Johnny Depp is flat out scary as James “Whitey” Bulger. With sallow, pale skin, thin, white hair, and ice-pick blue eyes, Depp completely disappears into the role. It’s nearly impossible to reconcile this reptilian presence with the good-natured goof that is Captain Jack Sparrow, the two characters sharing only one similar feature, that being a tooth — gold in Sparrow’s case, and dead in Bulger’s.
Reaction is oddly mixed on Depp’s performance, with some experiencing Johnny Depp fatigue and complaining that it’s just another wig and make-up job, but I maintain that Depp’s ability to completely transform makes him one of the best actors working today, whether his movies are always the best or not.
As Connolly, Aussie Joel Edgerton also does a remarkable job. Bulger is just a bad, bad guy, but Connolly is a character whose moral compass is so out of whack that he actually considers himself one of the good guys, even when he’s going to remarkable lengths to protect his murderous friend. For him, loyalty trumps all other ethical concerns.
The film is jam-packed with cameos and smaller roles for some great actors, such as Kevin Bacon, Corey Stoll, Peter Sarsgaard, and even Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays Bulger’s brother, who is, remarkably, a sitting Massachusetts legislator during the period the story unfolds.
Everyone is fine in these roles, but I was most impressed with Julianne Nicholson, an actress known more for TV roles than film, who plays Connolly’s long-suffering wife Marianne. Her role is not large, but she has one particularly electrifying scene with Bulger where he intimately intimidates her — effectively terrorizing her by doing little more than caressing her face. You keep thinking, “He’s not going to hurt her. Not her” — and then you remember he strangled a prostitute not five minutes earlier.
That above scene was particularly tense, but it also highlights the biggest problem with “Black Mass.” Aside from the performances, the film has a bit of a “been there, done that” feel. It’s definitely by the numbers. Every murder is telegraphed from a mile away. In a better crafted film there would be more surprises, more of the unexpected, but here, every time you think, “He’s totally gonna shoot that guy,” guess what? He totally does.
That the film is familiar doesn’t detract from the enjoyment of watching it — if you like gangster pictures, you’ll like “Black Mass,” but it does keep the movie from being anything really special. It’s an adequate film with above average performances, and two stellar performances from the two lead actors. The story of Bulger and his rise to power, especially his partnership with the FBI, is remarkable — but the movie version? Just pretty good, and that’s not bad.
“Black Mass” is rated R for pervasive language, brutal violence, and some sexual dialogue.
Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.