Warner Brothers, which has given us gangland classics like Little Caesar (1931), White Heat (1949), and Goodfellas (1990), adds to its arsenal another engrossing entry, Black Mass, from the twisted saga of James “Whitey” Bulger. But gangsters weren’t uppermost on my mind as I watched. To me it’s almost like a Frankenstein story, with an ambitious FBI agent, toying with dark forces, creating an uncontrollable, havoc-wreaking monster.
The parallels aren’t exact. Bulger, who had done time at Alcatraz before returing to his roots in Boston’s tough “Southie” neighborhood, was already damaged beyond repair by the mid-70s, a sociopath who lavished attention upon cats, old ladies, and his mom when he wasn’t pushing drugs and bumping off small-time competitors. He and the feds had the same problem–the Mafia, which was muscling in on his territory. Sensing opportunity, one G-man, John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), decides to make Bulger an informant–or, rather, a fellow “strategist,” in an “alliance” that is in part brokered by Bulger’s straight-arrow brother, Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch), Connolly’s boyhood friend. Bulger agrees to tip off the FBI regarding Cosa Nostra goings-on, while Connolly agrees to look the other way as his new partner amasses greater power in the Boston underworld. Bulger quickly violates the one ground rule–“no murders.”
Never one to shy from heavy makeup, Johnny Depp disappears into the android-like nullity of Bulger. After a run of bum performances in lousy movies, Depp is chilling as the almost humanoid gangster, a puppet who is clandestinely pulling all the strings, often ruthlessly, but sometimes with a pat on the back–or, in the film’s squimiest scene, a caress to the face, administered to Connolly’s disapproving wife, Marianne (Julianne Nicholson). His compassionate creatures for Tim Burton have been replaced by something infinitely harder, a death machine quick to respond to slights. (This turncoat is the opposite of his Donnie Brasco, an undercover cop conflicted by his duties.)
In a typical Frankenstein story, the doctor, feeling remorseful, attempts to put the brakes on his creation. Not here. Connolly fixes things to divert federal attention away from his prize informant, stepping far outside the law, and revels in the attention and perks that come with being the agency’s top dog. The line between cops and criminals disappears in a haze of blood ties and loyalties, and Edgerton (writer and co-star of the summer sleeper The Gift) plays Connolly with a jittery verve, as his scruples are abandoned to maintain the fiction of his increasingly one-sided collaboration with Bulger.
True to its title, Black Mass is a somber affair, shot mostly in browns and grays, and punctuated by gunfire. DP Masanobu Takayanagi’s camera bores into faces, emphasizing a sense of entrapment. Some of them belong to Kevin Bacon and Adam Scott, as FBI members who reluctantly go along with Connolly’s plan; David Harbour as Connolly’s colleague, the one most ensnared in his web of deceit; Corey Stoll, who made something of a nothing villain part in Ant-Man, bringing similar gusto to a far less lenient official here; Jesse Plemons and Rory Cochrane as hoods; Dakota Johnson as the mother of Bulger’s beloved son, which offers little protection; and a personal favorite, Bill Camp, as the crook behind the unlikely jai alai racket that Bulger has going in Florida. Meriting special mention in this excellent cast: Peter Sarsgaard, as a sweatily unhinged junkie whose stories of Bulger are quashed by duplicitous feds, and Juno Temple, as the saddest of victims.
Thanks to Mystic River (2003), The Departed (2006), and the collected works of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck the movies have taken us to Southie more than they have to Paris in recent years, sometimes with an overlay of the Bulger story, so a certain deja vu is inevitable in the telling. (A two-season TV show, Brotherhood, was devoted to a fictionalized relationship between the siblings, enacted with a terse warmth by Depp and Cumberbatch; it ended in 2008, three years before a fugitive Bulger was arrested in Santa Monica, CA.) Director Scott Cooper (of the Oscar-winning Crazy Heart and a more unbridled actorfest, Out of the Furnace) errs in reinforcing that feeling with occasional blasts of gangland’s greatest hits, notably the trailer’s “family recipe” scene, which mimics Goodfellas (25 years young on Saturday). But on the heels of Joe Berlinger’s documentary Whitey, scenarists Mark Mallouk and playwright Jez Butterworth have comprehensively, and clearly, brought the whole sordid saga to the screen. Call it Dark Prince of the City.