It’s been a rough few years for Johnny Depp—well, about as rough as it can get for a multimillionaire, private island-owning A-list actor who’s married to one of the most stunning women in Hollywood.
There was The Tourist, a glamorous misfire that the wily Ricky Gervais reduced to a Golden Globes punchline; that unfortunate bird situated atop his head in The Lone Ranger; the sci-fi scramble Transcendence, otherwise known as The Lawnmower Man on PCP, and Mortdecai, which registered as a mere blip on the cultural radar. Hell, even the Australian government demanded its pound of flesh, issuing an insane fatwa against Depp over his beloved Yorkshire terriers.
With that said, there’s something almost poetic about Depp unleashing his comeback role as a ruthless gangster at the Venice Film Festival. His last great turn came as the notorious bank robber John Dillinger in 2009’s Public Enemies, but more than that, the canal-rich city is the very same setting as that 2010 Gervais punching bag where things began to go south for him.
A scene early on in Black Mass illustrates criminal James “Whitey” Bulger’s warped worldview—one where blind “loyalty” and a perverse sense of justice supersedes all else. He’s seated at the breakfast table with his girlfriend (Dakota Johnson, superb as usual) and their young boy, who can’t be more than nine. He confesses that a boy at school attempted to steal from him, so he retaliated by punching him in the face. Bulger stares him dead in the eye, before cracking a grin, and dispensing his advice: “You got in trouble because you smacked a snotty little brat in the face in front of other people,” he tells him. “If nobody sees it, it didn’t happen.” So much is communicated by that stare. These are far from the pale blue eyes Lou Reed serenaded, but icy, unblinking orbs radiating menace. And when you’re caught in the crosshairs of those squinty eyes, sharp cheekbones, bald head, and rotting teeth, well, god help you. Depp’s Bulger resembles a zombie-like ghoul whose mere presence sucks all the oxygen out of the room, and props should be given to the makeup department for not subjecting us to another J. Edgar abomination.
Directed by Scott Cooper, Black Mass opens in 1975 South Boston. By this point, Bulger is 10 years removed from a lengthy prison stint for armed robbery—one that took him to Alcatraz, and led to his participation in the CIA’s MK-ULTRA program, where inmates were given reduced sentences for their participation in mind-altering LSD experiments (Bulger, the film says, took part in 50 drug trials).While the head of the Winter Hill Gang, Bulger and his cronies are merely low-level South Boston gangsters who’ve just started to engage in a turf war over Southie with the Angiulo crime family, led by Mafia underboss Gennaro Angiulo. And then a gift falls into their lap in the form of John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), a childhood friend of Bulger’s turned FBI agent, who offers to form an “alliance” with Bulger. The catch? Bulger must become a “Top Echelon Informant” supplying information against the Angiulos in exchange for protection from the FBI.“It’s a business opportunity: Get the FBI to fight our wars against our enemies while they protect us, and we get to do whatever the fuck we wanna do,” Bulger says.
Bulger was already a murderous thief when Connolly made the Faustian pact, with the area underneath the bridge over Neponset River christened “Bulger Burial Ground.” But with the FBI in his pocket, Bulger and his Winter Hill Gang are given free reign over South Boston’s crime activities.
When Bulger’s son suddenly passes away from Reye’s Syndrome after an allergic reaction to aspirin, he cuts his girlfriend loose and ups his criminal activities. (It’s here we should note that the timeline of the film is a bit screwy, as it opens in 1975 but Bulger’s son, Douglas, died in 1973). Bulger quickly rises to become Boston’s most feared and powerful crime lord—thanks in large part to the protection granted him by Connolly and the FBI.
“He’s small-time, and the next minute he’s a goddamn kingpin,” his associate, Kevin Weeks (Jesse Plemons), tells the feds. “You know why? Because the FBI let it happen.” Cooper’s film flashes back and forth between the ex-post facto confessions of Bulger’s Winter Hill comrades to their criminal heyday. And here, the voiceover technique seems lazy and uninspired, as do several of the murder sequences, which become repetitive and could’ve used a touch of Fincher’s stylized slaughter to make each set piece stand out individually.
The film also loses steam in the final third, as Bulger becomes involved in the World Jai Alai league and running guns to the IRA, and his stranglehold over his once-centralized criminal empire begins to fall apart. Bulger’s strange relationship with his politician-brother, William “Billy” Bulger (Benedict Cumberbatch, solid) a senator who rose to become president of the Massachusetts State Senate, is barely touched on—save the occasional family dinner—and the FBI are largely freed from blame, with the onus falling on the shoulders of Connolly, who’s portrayed as one of the only agents at the Bureau—along with his co-conspirator, John Morris (David Harbour)—who’s aware of Bulger’s cozy relationship with the FBI. In doing so, the film lets both the FBI and “Billy” Bulger off the hook for their likely role in aiding and abetting the most notorious crime lord in Boston.Plus, arguably the most riveting chapter in Bulger’s unbelievable story, the years he spent on the run from the feds from 1995 until his capture in 2011, is glossed over.
But Black Mass is first and foremost a showcase for Depp, who delivers a chilling turn far different from Jack Nicholson’s gonzo, dildo-wielding Bulger clone in The Departed. His is a cold, calculated killer whose only interest is his own self-preservation, and Depp imbues Bulger with a vampiric quality—when he enters a room, all tremble, hang on his every word, and kiss his pinky ring. It’s a powerhouse performance, and proof that, when motivated, Depp can be one of the most compelling character actors in the business.