There isn’t anything spectacular about the story of James “Whitey” Bulger on the face. He was a small time crime boss who wound up being the criminal kingpin of South Boston for a short while. What makes it interesting is that he rose to fame by being protected by the FBI during his rise, giving them information while essentially having the federal government covering for him. That’s what makes the story interesting; Bulger’s relationship with John Connolly, a special agent for the FBI, has inspired any number of films both foreign and domestic. A film that posited a Bulger like character, The Departed, wound up giving Martin Scorsese his first Oscar win. and Bulger type characters have popped up in a handful of great films.
Unfortunately Black Mass, the actual biopic of Bulger, might be the weakest of any depiction of Bulger or a Bulger type character.
The film follows the rise of Bulger (Johnny Depp) through the Boston underworld. He strikes a deal with FBI Agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), a friend of he and his brother (Benedict Cumberbatch) from childhood. The FBI’s war on the Italian mob made them strike deals with anyone who could help the cause. In this case Bulger had fed intelligence to Connolly and the FBI in exchange for protection in their burgeoning crime empire. The vacuum of the departure of the Italians let Bulger grow his criminal empire unchecked. The film follows Bulger during these years as an FBI informant, before he’d go on the run and his entire empire would crumble around him.
The problem is that the film doesn’t do much with the premise other than give us the basic facts of the situation. Bulger is an evil guy, as are his cronies, and there isn’t any other insight into the life of Bulger than this. It’s the same basic facts that a handful of documentaries have already given us. This just allows Johnny Depp to dress up and play gangster, nothing more. There’s nothing explored about the nature of Bulger the man, or his relationship with Connolly, that gives us any insight into why both men did what they did other than for tertiary reasons.
There’s no insight into the man other than using the phrase “Whitey Bulger is an evil man,” which is about the only thing we really explore about Bulger the character. Major moments in his life, the deaths of his son and mother, are blips on the radar that don’t lead to anything more than “Whitey Bulger is an evil man, still.” There isn’t anything of note we learn about Bulger outside of varying degrees of depravity in regards to his lack of valuation of human life. Depp is evil as Bulger but this isn’t anything we haven’t seen before.
He doesn’t mail in his performance, something he’s done more frequently as of late, but this isn’t a brilliant performance either. There’s no pizzazz or charm to the role; Depp doesn’t embarrass himself but this isn’t an award worthy performance either. That seems to be the theme of the film as well. This is a handful of actors doing just enough to not be embarassing but there’s nothing that’s memorable once you leave the theatre.
If anything a film like The Departed gave us a better insight into the mindset of someone like Bulger than Black Mass does. This is the American Hustle of true crime films, mainly. There’s lots of stars, and lots of notable character actors, but this is about as deep a character study of Bulger as Straight Outta Compton was a historically accurate depiction of NWA.
Black Mass isn’t a mess of a film; it’s just not a very good one.
Director: Scott Cooper Writer: Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth, based on the book of the same name by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill Notable Cast: Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Kevin Bacon, Julianne Nicholson, Dakota Johnson