Silver Screen: Black Mass ****
The best movie monster of 2015 has slipped out of his horror-movie confines and lurched into a gangster flick. Johnny Depp’s James “Whitey” Bulger is a spectral figure painted in ghostly shades of pale: thinning wisps of white hair stretched back across a knob of skull, skin powdered to a funeral-parlor pallor, blue eyes gone milky. His sallow cheeks and snaggle-toothed leer make him look vampiric— not a seductive Dracula, but a grotesque Nosferatu.
Depp’s take on Bulger is so frightening that Black Mass seems afraid to engage him directly. Director Scott Cooper spies him through the eyes of his accomplices, his enemies, his baby mama, and his state-senator brother, but keeps his distance. Bulger remains the unknowable black hole around which the others spin, inevitably drawn in to their doom.
Bulger is perhaps the most notorious American gangster since John Gotti. The Boston-born killer spent more than a decade as a fugitive before his arrest in 2011. Cooper doesn’t bother with Whitey’s days as a newly married man on the lam. Instead, Black Mass, written by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth, covers the rein of terror in between Bulger’s first incarceration and the time he split to defer his second stint of jail time.
Whitey was the scary kid from his Beantown neighborhood, so it was no surprise he went on to manage a criminal enterprise. In the movie’s most blunt piece of dialogue, fellow South Boston native John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) notes that the kids grew up playing cops and robbers and kept the game going right up into adulthood, “but like on the playground, sometimes it was hard to tell who was what.” That’s the running theme in Black Mass, where the powerful operate from the highest echelon to the lowest with little regard to some perceived moral line.
Connolly goes to work for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, but it’s the criminal associations he seeks to exploit for his law-enforcement career. He dines on Christmas Eve at the Bulger house with Jimmy, a.k.a. Whitey, and his senator brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch). Connolly proposes a deal: If Whitey will provide the FBI information about his Italian mafia enemies, the feds will keep the police off the Irish Winter Hill Gang and dispose of their competition for them.
It’s a deal FBI boss Charles McGuire (Kevin Bacon) worries that Bulger and his goons will exploit. Connolly assures him the connection is their ticket to career-making busts, but good sense gives way to ambition, as nearly everyone who comes into contact with Whitey soon falls prey to their worst impulses.
Black Mass works best as a portrait of the eighties Boston underworld and a character sketch drawn from the edges in. The plot, per se, is interesting but not especially dynamic. Cooper is less interested in a straight-line narrative than establishing a collage of Bulger through a series of powerful scenes that can be appreciated without much context. If there’s a kind of running gag, it’s that Bulger keeps revealing himself to be meaner and colder than we expect. He’s at his most frightening not when he’s machine-gunning an old man in a country-club parking lot, but in his terrible quiet, menacing Connolly’s disapproving wife (Julianne Nicholson) or turning on his own former lover (Dakota Johnson) while their child is in the hospital.
Cooper is a fine director whose tendency toward bleakness can be a handicap, as in his revenge flick Out of the Furnace, which wallowed in poverty and violence with too much masochistic glee. His grim worldview is well-suited to the tale of Whitey Bulger, and he works with rich shadow that teeters on chiaroscuro, while all the sunlight in the movie glints starkly of burnished wood that reminds us how old Boston, and Boston’s ways of getting by, really is.
Without question, this is Depp’s movie, and the performance should earn him accolades. That’s a no-brainer. He’s really that good, as restrained and mysterious as he’s been in years, back to his chameleon act after a decade spent establishing himself as a cartoon brand. He’s so damned good that he overshadows several dynamite supporting players, which is a shame, because Rory Cochrane is heartbreaking as a tragic lackey, Johnson is flinty as hell, W. Earl Brown is chilling as a no-nonsense hitman, and Peter Sarsgaard is gloriously unhinged as a coked-up street hustler.
Black Mass is a stunner. It overcomes its clunky, on-the-nose voiceover narratives and overfamiliar milieu with singular performances and a novel approach to the gangster picture. Martin Scorsese’s mobsters are frightening, but we can never help but be a little jealous of their enviable lives, at least during that glorious time between the epiphany of the first act and when the promise of doom descends in the third. There’s nothing good about Cooper’s fellas. There’s no glamor in their game or heart of their darkness.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.