My movie weekend started at 7 p.m. Friday night, when I went and saw Black Mass, the true-crime expose of the Boston crime boss James “Whitey” Bulger. The picture stars Johnny Depp as the murderous, opportunistic kingpin, while Joel Edgerton portrays fellow South-Bostonian and conspirator, FBI agent John Connolly. It’s a somewhat typical, mostly entertaining look at one of America’s most notorious most-wanted criminals of the time.
Black Mass has a few things going for it. First of all, Depp is in good form as “Whitey” Bulger. He commits cold-blooded murder to solve any inconvenience along the way to ruling Boston’s scummy criminal underworld. Depp’s Bulger is a methodical, cunning and careful small-time mobster who takes every opportunity granted to propel himself to the big leagues of the black market. We get a particularly riveting piece of the character’s psyche when he explains the ethics of punching people in the face to his elementary school-aged son. “It’s not what you do”, he tells the boy. “It’s when and where you do it and who you do it to or with. If nobody sees it,” Bulger reassures his son, “didn’t happen.”
Along the way, we get solid work from an impressive cast. Supporters Benedict Cumberbatch, Dakota Johnson, Jesse Plemons, Kevin Bacon, Adam Scott and Corey Stoll all come along to fight the fight that sees the eventual downfall of Bulger’s Winter Hill Gang. It’s a tense cat-and-mouse game throughout, but we only get short glimpses of the damage done.
The crime drama covers roughly seven years in just over two hours, and director Scott Cooper takes on the difficult task of packing such a long period into 122 minutes. It’s a movie with fundamental flaws in its nature. A highly calculated, brutal and bloody war unfolds on the streets of Boston. But it all happens so fast, and some moments and spaces that Agent Connolly, “Whitey” Bulger and their respective peers occupy feel more intriguing than others. It left me wishing that the story had something to say about itself, and didn’t just serve as a series of glimpses into the acts of a real-life villain.
Interestingly enough, the real James “Whitey” Bulger has denounced what he’s heard of Black Mass and Depp’s portrayal of him. Former member of the Winter Hill Gang Kevin Weeks claims that what we have on our hands is pure “fantasy.” It seems strange that the makers of a true crime story about “Whitey” Bulger would veer from the facts and into the realm of exaggeration when a movie already exists that does just that. I’m talking about Martin Scorsese’s The Departed. Not even 10 years old, the Academy Award-winning movie was a loose interpretation of “Whitey” Bulger’s eventual end. Perhaps if The Departed had not been released, Black Mass would be more worthwhile. But the new, supposedly more genuine representation felt hesitant, as if trying to straddle the line between fact and fiction while propelling us a month-per-minute through the timeline.
Essentially, Black Mass is a shadow to both Bulger’s true story and The Departed’s artistic falsehoods. It feels aimless despite its grit, its guts and its star, and I think that to some degree there is a good movie hiding somewhere within this Mass. Grade: C-