Whitey Bulger was a terrible man. He was a lifelong criminal and murderer who ran roughshod over South Boston for 25 years. And he did it while being under the protection of the FBI! It’s an amazing story. A true story. It’s great material for a movie. A great movie! But true stories are not always so easy to bring to life in a film. Especially, when everyone already knows how the story ends. Apollo 13 did it wonderfully. Donnie Brasco also managed to pull it off. Black Mass comes close. It does have Johnny Depp.
It’s good to see Johnny Depp in top form again, sinking his teeth in a juicy role and knocking it out of the park. Unfortunately, the film falls a little flat. It has all the makings of a great gangster film, good cast, great real life story, and director Scott Cooper whose last film Out Of The Furnace, while not a commercial success was well received and had a strong visual sense. Black Mass just doesn’t build enough tension to bring the viewer to the known conclusion. They finally get Whitey Bulger!
Depp plays Whitey Bulger, a small time local South Boston hood who becomes allied with a young, ambitious FBI agent, John Connelly, well played by Joel Edgerton, who also grew up in South Boston and was friends with Bulger and his brother, state senator William “Billy” Bulger (Benedict Cumberbatch). The last thing a gangster wants to be is a ‘rat’ but Whitey begins to use his relationship with Connelly to his advantage. The deal was that Whitey would avoid illegal doings while being an FBI informant but instead he accelerates his illegal activity and commits murder after murder while being protected by Connelly. As the years go by, Connelly falls deeper and deeper into the darkness and begins to provide Bulger with info to keep him safe and which actually leads to the murder of another informant. He starts to partake in the finer things a gangster life can offer, nice suits, fancy watches, trips, and women. Connelly’s marriage disintegrates along with his soul and when a new tough States Attorney is brought in with a hard on for Whitey Bulger both men know the jig is up.
Black Mass gives you everything you need to know about Whitey Bulger, and introduces his gang of toughs (Rory Cochrane, Jesse Plemons, W. Earl Brown) and his politician brother who is complicit in his knowledge of his brothers’ business but the movie just seems to flat line before getting to the end. Cochrane, Plemons and Brown are all fine but are given little to do and their characters aren’t fleshed out. The most effective scene is between Depp and Julianne Nicholson who plays Connelly’s put upon wife. If the movie had more scenes like this one it would have benefited greatly. Bulger’s 2011 capture in California after 16 years in hiding is shown as an epilogue and seems anti-climactic. It sure seems like an opportunity was missed.
Martin Scorsese’s Oscar winning film, The Departed used Whitey Bulger as the inspiration for the Irish mobster, Frank Costello, played by Jack Nicholson. I hate to compare the two films but The Departed is a film that really builds tension. Scorsese is one of the best directors in the history of film. Scott Cooper has promise but he has a ways to go. Hopefully, this experience will pave the way for a film that will deliver the goods.