“Black Mass” is a chilly crime drama which is also weirdly disjointed at times. While it feels uttermost solemn and serious as a dark, insidious crime tale revolving around one of the notorious real-life criminal figures in Boston, it is also peculiar and twisted as we think more about not only the absurd aspects of the story but also its enigmatic center shrouded in the unnerving aura of malevolence.
Based on Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill’s nonfiction book “Black Mass: The True Story of an Unholy Alliance Between the FBI and the Irish Mob”, the movie is about the rise and fall of James “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp), who was the leader of the Winter Hill Gang in the South Boston area during 1978-1995. He was also an informant for FBI during that period, and the public exposure of how he exploited his connection to FBI for his own criminal benefits was a big embarrassment for FBI, which had let Bulger get away with his crimes because of the tips he provided.
Through several associates of Bulger testifying against their boss as a part of their deal with the federal government, we are told about how Bulger happened to be associated with FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton). While Bulger holds his region under his firm, ruthless control in 1975, he is having a problem with the rival Italian gang in the North Boston area, and that is where Connolly comes into the picture. Connolly wants to undermine Bulger’s rival gang and the local Mafia organization associated with it, and Bulger looks like an ideal informant who can provide useful information to him.
As a matter of fact, they knew each other pretty well. Besides being a native of the same neighbourhood where Bulger grew up, Connolly was very close to Bulger and Bulger’s brother William “Billy” Bulger (Benedict Cumberbatch) during their early years. In contrast to his criminal brother, Billy has been a respectable local politician, but they are still family because, well, blood is thicker than water. When they are having a dinner with their aging mother, they do not talk much about their respective worlds while behaving well in front of their mother as her good sons, and it is suggested that everyone in the town has accepted their odd familial connection without much problem.
When Connolly approaches to him, Bulger flatly rejects Connolly’s offer, but then he changes his mind after perceiving that he may benefit a lot from being associated with FBI. Under his several conditions, he begins to work as an informant for Connolly, and he tells his secret connection with FBI only to his right-hand man, who accepts his boss’s decision despite his own reservation.
Connolly firmly believes that Bulger will be a valuable asset for his operation against the local Mafia organization, but his boss and other agents in FBI are skeptical and cautious for good reasons. Bulger will be protected as their informant as Connolly requests, but that means he and his gang will not be prosecuted for whatever they commit on their mean streets, and Connolly finds himself crossing the lines as his No.1 informant keeps rising up and up through many cold-blooded crimes.
There eventually comes a major success to please everyone in FBI, but then Connolly gets himself involved more with Bulger, and that certainly alarms his wife Marianne (Julianne Nicholson). She understandably becomes very nervous when her husband cordially invites Bulger and his associates to their house, and there is a very tense moment between her and Bulger when Bulger confronts her when she is alone in her bedroom later. While quietly talking to her, Bulger looks at Marianne like a vile snake appreciating a possible prey, and the book she was reading adds extra creepiness to this scene.
While usually maintaining the distance from its creepy psychopathic hero, the adapted screenplay by Jez Butterworth and Mark Mallouk never goes deep into what makes him tick, but Johnny Depp, a talented actor who can do a lot more than playing Captain Jack Sparrow, is compelling to watch in his uncanny performance. With the pale make-up which makes him almost look like a vampire, he effectively exudes his character’s monstrous nature, and his cold eyes and reptilian façade look all the more frightening as we see more of what kind of evils his character is capable of. Depp deftly balances his acting between dark humor and chilling terror, and he is alternatively fearful and amusing during one dinner scene clearly influenced by a similar scene in “Goodfellas” (1990).
The director Scott Cooper surrounds Depp with various supporting performers, though some of them are wasted in their thankless roles. Joel Edgerton is solid as a corruptible man who goes too far for his ambition and pays a big price for that in the end, and David Harbour, Kevin Bacon, and Adam Scott are the FBI guys who unfortunately happen to work with Connolly. Rory Cochrane, Jesse Plemons, W. Earl Brown, and Peter Sarsgaard come and go as Bulger’s main gang members, Benedict Cumberbatch is unflappable as a seasoned politician who stays not too close to his criminal brother, and Corey Stoll is a persistent assistant US Attorney who senses something very fishy about Bulger and Connolly. Compared to the male performers in the film, Dakota Johnson, Juno Temple, and Julianne Nicholson are under-utilized, but Johnson has a good scene with Depp when their characters grieve over the sudden illness of their young son, which is one of a few human moments glimpsed from Bulger in the film.
Overall, “Black Mass” does not fully realize its narrative potentials, but it is still not that disappointing mainly thank to Depp’s memorably grotesque performance. As shown from “Edward Scissorhands” (1990) or “Ed Wood” (1994), Depp always find something interesting to play from his offbeat characters, and he ably holds our attention as usual even when he does not reveal much of whatever is inside his elusive character. Bulger in the film is indeed a twisted monster we will never understand, but isn’t he a terrible piece of work to watch?