In his new gangster drama Black Mass, Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart) doesn’t bring anything particularly new or innovative to the American crime drama. You’ll find yourself mentally comparing it to Goodfellas and especially The Departed, and it doesn’t have as much to offer as last year’s A Most Violent Year, but it does give Johnny Depp a good chance to remind us why he has been seen at times as a candidate for the outstanding actor of his generation. After a series of somewhat awful roles (Mortdecai? Dark Shadows?) and some just plain inexplicable ones (Alice in Wonderland? Into the Woods?) Depp returns to form playing Jimmy (don’t you dare call him “Whitey”) Bulger, mob king of South Boston and No. 2 on the FBI’s “Most Wanted” list for a dozen years (after Osama bin Laden).
With a pasty white face, receding hairline, lightened hair, a darkened front tooth and eerie blue contacts lenses, Depp inhabits the role of this real-life gangster (a figure Jack Nicholson’s character in The Departed was loosely based on) and brings him to life as the embodiment of a sociopath. Though there are a few attempts to arouse some audience sympathy in scenes where Bulger displays affection for his small son, his elderly mother, and his (apparently honest) politician brother, it never quite does the trick. His advice to his son about dealing with another boy at school—“Hit him when nobody’s around. If nobody saw it, it didn’t happen”—is the code of the sociopath. And his private interactions with others, most memorably a feigned sympathetic visit to his partner’s wife, played by an excellent Julianne Nicholson (August Osage County), in which he terrifies her and essentially eliminates any chance of audience sympathy, demonstrate how he lives by that code.
Depp is riveting in the role, but what the audience does not get from Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth’s script is a real motive. Why was James “Whitey” Bulger the person he was? There are scraps of evidence: apparently he has always liked being a “big man”—we’re told more than once how everybody looked up to him as a kid. Greed? Sure, there’s no lack of that. And maybe his decade of imprisonment at Leavenworth and Alcatraz served to harden him. But essentially it’s the pathology that gets the biggest play, and when you play a person who lacks normal human empathy, it’s virtually impossible to make an audience sympathize with you—or in fact to relate to you on any level.
The story of the film begins in 1975, when a former neighborhood kid and now FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) returns to South Boston with a plan to enlist his boyhood idol Jimmy Bulger, leader of the Irish Winter Hill Gang, to help him bring down the Italian mafia, the Angiulo Brothers, who run North Boston. Connolly first approaches Jimmy’s brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch), a state senator and the most powerful politician on the south side. Billy cuts Connolly off, but does deliver the message to Jimmy, who is reluctant to turn FBI informant but, when one of his Winter Hill gang is killed by the Angiulos, agrees to work with Connolly.
Connolly’s FBI boss Charles McGuire (Kevin Bacon) is uncomfortable with the arrangement to say the least, and insists on a “no murder, no drugs” policy on Bulger if he is going to remain an FBI informant. On his side, Bulger’s second in command, Stephen Flemmi (Rory Cochrane), dislikes the deal from the start, but when Jimmy tells him “It’s a business opportunity: to get the FBI to fight our wars against our enemies, while they protect us and we do whatever the f— we want,” reluctantly agrees to soldier on. Under FBI protection, Jimmy has a free rein to run numbers, drugs, fix horseraces, get involved in jai alai scams in Florida and IRA gun running in Northern Ireland. And commit plenty of murders, all in violation of his FBI agreement, which has given him carte blanche to build himself into one of the most ruthless gangsters in American history.
With Depp as the monster, the human interest in the movie really gravitates toward Edgerton as Connolly. Edgerton, who directed and acted in The Gift, in theaters earlier this summer, is compelling as Connolly, who has the real character arc in the story. He begins as an apparently well-meaning officer of the law, back home in South Boston with a plan to bring down the mob. Of course he wants to show off in front of his old neighborhood crowd, and he particularly wants to impress Jimmy, whom he seems to have idolized growing up. But he wants to show off his hometown to his wife Marianne (Nicholson), and it is through her eyes that we see the changes in Connolly most vividly. He rises in the bureau, gaining praise and respect as the man who brought down the mafia boss of Boston, while at the same time he is enjoying the fruits of Jimmy’s nefarious activities—expensive suits, jewelry, parties. He insists that honor, friendship, and loyalty mean more than any of his wife’s abstract ethical schemes, but Marianne sees more clearly what he has become, one small compromise at a time, until he has lost his moral compass completely. Even her leaving him does not seem to clarify his moral vision.
The film is graced by a host of terrific performances by characters in smaller roles. Cochrane (Argo) is gut-wrenching as Jimmy’s lieutenant, ordered to clean things up whenever Jimmy goes berserk and kills an informant, or even a small time prostitute (a memorable but brief appearance by Juno Temple) who could conceivably become an informant. Cochrane’s restrained disgust, like a devil grown sick of hell, is haunting as the film moves toward its climax. David Harbour (Quantum of Solace) as Connolly’s partner John Morris is nearly as moving as a foil to Connolly, going along unquestioningly with the scheme until the enormity of what they have been doing comes home to him and he realizes they are about to go down. Peter Sarsgaard (Jarhead) is memorable in a small role as a drug addicted hitman who makes the mistake of informing on Jimmy to the wrong FBI agent. And Corey Stoll (Ant-Man) is impressive as a tough new prosecutor who refuses to fall for Connolly’s glad-handing and makes it his business to bring down Jimmy.
But it is Benedict Cumberbatch who makes the biggest impression, and remains the biggest wasted opportunity, among the smaller roles in the film. It’s puzzling at first to see Cumberbatch, after the great critical success of last year’s The Imitation Game, in this small but important role, but he was actually cast in the spring of 2014, well before the success of that film. As Billy Bulger, president of the Massachusetts State Senate for 18 years and later president of the University of Massachusetts, Cumberbatch plays a tough but honest politician who manages, at the same time, to remain loyal to his criminal brother. The story of their relationship would have been at least as fascinating as the FBI connection. But it seems that neither Billy nor Jimmy Bulger has ever been willing to discuss that relationship with anybody outside the family.
This is not a great film, but the performances make it a very watchable one. Three solid Tennysons for this one.