What do you know about James “Whitey” Bulger, the man who ran Boston’s Irish mob in the ’70s to the early ’90s? Did you know that he eradicated a city by slinging drugs through local high schools? Did you know that he rose to power after being in Alcatraz by starting a land war in South Boston? If your answer is no, then still don’t go see Black Mass, because it doesn’t really care about informing or expounding upon important historical facts like this.
Bulger was once on the FBI’s most wanted list, second to Osama Bin Laden. No matter what your own view of the man is, he murdered people to get ahead as the crime boss of Boston and it was partially due to an FBI agent’s negligence. Black Mass is the dramatized version of Bulger’s criminal life, starting in 1975 when he met his crony Kevin Weeks and ending with his arrest in 2011. The film doesn’t fetishize what Bulger did or the effect he had on the city of Boston. It instead takes a much more convenient route and primarily shows the relationship between Bulger (Johnny Depp) and his FBI handler/childhood friend, John Connolly (Joel Edgerton).
Director Scott Cooper (Out Of The Furnace) tries to create this holistic view of Bulger without taking sides. The story is told through the recreation of testimonies that Bulger’s crew gave to the FBI once the arrests started coming down. Sure, this is a good way to dive into the story without using Whitey as the primary narrator, but the film double-backs on its own structure so many times that you can’t help but wonder whose story you’re listening to.
One thing is for certain, though; the cast turns out some great work. It’s just in service of such monotonous material. That isn’t to say that Black Mass has an easy go at the job of telling all there is to know about Bulger, but it doesn’t do itself any favors by not developing an atmosphere or overlying worldview underneath the threadbare moral politics at play. For what it’s worth, Depp is great as Bulger. I’m tepid to call it a “comeback” for Depp just based off the fact that he’s not called on to do anything else but stare menacingly and assert his physical presence. After all, this isn’t a journey into the mind of one of the country’s most dangerous psychopaths.
Black Mass’ saving grace comes in the form of its supporting cast. Jesse Plemmons is next-level good as Kevin Weeks, the portly and brutish right-hand to Bulger’s criminal empire. I was more terrified of what his character did to people than Depp’s. Joel Edgerton is perfectly fine as John Connolly. It’s just too bad that his character arc boils down to “good man is befallen by greed.” Benedict Cumberbatch teeters between self-seriousness and parody as Billy Bulger, the senator brother of Jimmy. The mousy accent needed to play the man slips a few times as Cumberbatch tries to find a foothold in the chintzy material he’s given.
Under Cooper’s direction, the city of Boston has never looked so dull. The streets of South Boston (“Southie,” for short) are traded in for the burbs of Somerville (another city surrounding Boston) and lose all of the gritty realism that it so desperately needed. Scorsese did it right with The Departed by shooting the streets like a tight-knit community, showcasing a neighborhood where everyone knows your name—y’know, like the TV show Cheers, but with more murder. Nothing about the visuals is striking. Just the usual reaction shots of people in the same room as Depp’s Bulger. Depictions of graphic violence totally miss their target by a score wallowing in the dour reality of the story, like funeral chords for the slain. If you want to develop a well-rounded take on Bulger, you might want to hone in on the man’s criminal reach as it grew from “Southie” into the other areas of Boston, like an infection.
Black Mass is Hollywood fakery at its worst—not just because it provides almost zero insight into the man himself, but also because it has absolutely nothing to say about the things said on-screen. We may drop our E’s and our R’s in Massachusetts, but we’d never drop disturbing truths in favor of something more pedestrian and convenient.