Based on fact, this is essentially the story of James “Whitey” Bulger,
who ran the Winter Hill gang in South Boston for a couple of decades
from the 1970s to 1994, when he went on the lam as authorities were
closing in (he was arrested in California in 2011). But Bulger’s career
is coupled with that of John Connolly, a hotshot FBI agent who’d been a
pal of Jimmy and his brother Billy (now an important state senator) in
Southie when they were kids, and enlisted the mobster as a “partner” in
bringing down the Beantown chapter of the Mafia, convincing his Bureau
colleagues to give Bulger a pass on his crimes in return for the
information he passed on to them about his rivals. Over the years
Connolly became increasingly protective of Bulger and was ultimately
convicted of complicity in his nefarious deeds.
This is a complicated story, and it has been elided and simplified considerably, but it doesn’t flinch from portraying Bulger as a brutal man who
kills easily, from Tommy (Scott Anderson), a comrade he disposes of
near the start merely for a drunken argument and Brian Halloran (Peter
Sarsgaard), a hot-tempered hophead who tries to turn him in to the feds
(an attempt Connolly foils), to Deborah Hussey (Juno Temple), a
loquacious prostitute he snuffs personally, and John McIntyre (Brad
Carter), whose loose mouth led to the interception of a shipment of
weapons Bulger intended for the IRA—and to McIntyre’s torture and murder.
All of which gives Bulger a complexity that gives Johnny Depp the
opportunity finally to act again, giving a performance that’s alternately chilly and fierce, but always
Edgerton, as Connolly, frankly can’t match him; he portrays the FBI
agent who’s drawn into Bulger’s web as a big, hearty, ambitious man who
plans to be the puppet master and only gradually realizes that he’s the
one being used, but it’s a turn that doesn’t match Depp’s in
subtlety—especially in the latter stages when Connolly falls apart—and
so the back-and-forth between the two never has the resonance it might
have. Still, it’s a solid turn, as are Benedict Cumberbatch as Whitey’s circumspect brother and Peter
Sarsgaard who is memorable as one as Bulger’s would-be accuser.
Among the large supporting cast, Jesse Plemons, Rory Cochrane, and W.
Earl Brown stand out as the chief members of Bulger’s crew, whose
interviews with law enforcement provide the entree to the flashbacks
that reveal Whitey’s past. The women fare less
well, with Dakota Johnson and Julianne Nicholson, as Connolly’s increasingly
dubious wife, relegated mostly to the background, though Nicholson has
an excellent scene when Whitey casually threatens her; and Juno Temple, in
what amounts to an extended cameo, makes the naïve hooker a memorable
figure of Whitey’s wrath. Connolly is surrounded by a gaggle of other
law enforcement types, among whom Kevin Bacon and Adam Scott stand out
as skeptical colleagues, as does David Harbour as a more accommodating
one who will assist Connolly in protecting Bulger (like Nicholson, he
too has a great moment when he cringes beneath Whitey’s withering
threats) and Corey Stoll as the prosecutor who refuses to go along with
the coddling of Bulger.
Lesser roles have been filled carefully by director Scott Cooper,
who achieves an almost palpable sense of time and place (just as
he did in “Out of the Furnace”). He manages several set-pieces—like the
murder of Temple’s Hussey—with a masterly hand, and his careful
management of moments of abrupt violence keeps the audience consistently
on the edge of their seats. Tom Holkenberg contributes a moody score
that contributes to the dark atmosphere.
Though very good, Black Mass might not be the equal of the greatest
gangster pictures. But it has one great element in Johnny Depp's performance,
which makes this journey into the world of a vicious crime lord
endlessly engrossing and at times positively startling. At least one
Oscar nomination seems a foregone conclusion, but others may be in the
offing as well.