Black Mass, in which a cadaverous Johnny Depp portrays James “Whitey” Bulger, the famous Boston gangster and FBI informant, is the kind of movie that gives competence a bad name. It is a very well-made film: handsome, never boring, with strong performances in almost all the major parts. Yet it’s also deeply disappointing, a film that hits its marks but never figures out exactly what it wants us to care about, or why it exists as a story at all.
Which is unfortunate, because the real-life Bulger story is strange, fascinating, and an easy elevator pitch: An Irish-American hoodlum from Southie with a successful politician brother gets recruited by the feds, uses their protection to rub out his rivals and consolidate his power, and then, when the net tightens, goes on the lam for 16 years before he’s caught.
Martin Scorsese’s The Departed borrowed from the Bulger mythos but left its most interesting elements unexplored: the relationship between Whitey and his respectable sibling Billy, who served as president of the Massachusetts state senate during his brother’s criminal heyday, and the still more mysterious relationship between Whitey and his FBI handler, who enabled him far past the point of even the most cold-blooded sort of wisdom and ultimately paid for it in jail.
These relationships should be at the heart of Black Mass, which has two wonderful actors, Benedict Cumberbatch and Joel Edgerton, flanking Depp as Billy Bulger and the FBI’s John Connolly, respectively. But the film never quite figures out what it wants to do with them. Cumberbatch is modestly miscast: His English accent keeps slipping out and he plays Billy as too toffish, to the point where you can’t imagine him ever growing up in South Boston, let alone staying loyal in any way to a gangster brother. But the script also fails to give him anything to work with, keeping the character at arm’s length from the story and declining even to speculate on the nature of the two men’s strange sibling bond.
With Connolly we get more material, and Edgerton works hard in the part, playing the agent as a salesman, who works Bulger but, more important, works the skeptical crowd he’s selling Bulger to — from his fellow agents (a credulous David Harbour, a resistant Kevin Bacon) to his increasingly unhappy wife (Julianne Nicholson). Connolly grew up on the same streets as the Bulgers, and in Edgerton’s performance you can see the hustle, the mix of arrogance, anxiety, and desperation that hauled him up to the bureau and then cast him down again.
But every time you want the movie to stay with Connolly a little longer, to give us a clearer sense of his trajectory with Bulger — the compromises, the self-deceptions, the point of no return — it swings the focus back to the gangster. With Depp in the lead, this is understandable, and to his credit the star, often a scenery-chewer, gives a performance that’s at once riveting and restrained. As big-screen Satans go (a character is reading The Exorcist, just in case we don’t quite get the point), his Bulger is much more terrifying than Jack Nicholson’s hammy take in The Departed precisely because he hardly ever overdoes it; he’s ruthlessly violent, but always in control.
Unfortunately he’s also just a devil, unconflicted in his will to power and therefore not as interesting as a leading character needs to be. The movie includes some gestures at the humanity that presumably existed somewhere beneath Bulger’s wicked carapace — he loses a child to illness, he mourns his aged mother — but neither the script nor Depp’s performance makes you believe that his relationships and his grief were anything but selfish, an externalized expression of the prince of darkness’s horrible self-love.
Devils do exist, and there is nothing wrong with presenting Bulger as an essentially Stygian figure. But then you need a clearer depiction of exactly how he pulled other people down into perdition with him, or how they deceived and damned themselves. And the makers of Black Mass never seem to realize that this is what their film should be about; they’re too eager to skip ahead to the next whacking, the next moment when Bulger does something even worse than what we’ve seen him do before, instead of stepping back from his depredations and letting us see the story more through his brother’s or his handler’s eyes.
And Depp’s restraint in the part, while frightening and plausible, means that the crimes themselves are never ripely entertaining in the garish, trashy way of certain gangster movies. His Bulger is no Tony Soprano, but he’s no Tony Montana either.
Which leaves the restraint — the malignant charisma, the frightening stillness, the gleaming deep-set eyes — as the best reason to see this film. Is it impressive and effective? Yes, it is. Is it interesting enough to hand over two hours of your life? Having handed over two hours of mine, I can promise you it’s not.