One film critic, after recently reviewing Johnny Depp’s Black Mass, called it his second best film of 2015 – I suppose making the acclaimed Mortdecia his best. I’ll defer to his judgment on that, I missed the latter. Johnny Depp is James “Whitey” Bulger and as soon as you melt into your seat – your Jack Sparrow – Poof! Gone like last year’s fruitcake. He struts like a bantam rooster, all stiff and spry ready to pounce. And off you go, from the rip the movie springs like a rusty steel trap and soon you see and feel the distinction between “informing and informing.”
The real winner in this drama is the dialect coach, the “Southie Boys” long R’s and missing A’s shines early and often. Even the sultry Cumberbatch stylizes the “wicked” tongue and calls for his “Kar.” This film begins and ends with deception and rolls along into a tale of two paths, the hard scrabble streets of South Boston that produces both cops and killers and the line between the two is razor thin. Agent John Connolly, whom the Bulger brothers save from a street beat down, becomes the future agent embattled and tied at the hip with a common enemy – the eradication of the “real problem in Boston” – the Italian mob. Joel Edgerton shines as Agent Connolly, he, more than Depp, becomes the anti-hero obsessed and determined to make good – no matter how “bad” good becomes. In the end, Agent Connolly’s misplaced loyalty robs him of his career, his family and finally his freedom. Sadly, other than being a neighborhood kid, who in passing knew the Bulgers – his affection and belief in Whitey is clear and as the movie progresses – clearly misplaced,
Bulger’s Winterhill Gang began as numbers runners, coin-op schemers and low-level henchman talking business at the “The Triple O” bar and lounge, helping little old ladies with their groceries and playing gin rummy with mom – innocent enough. Bulger’s long-time girlfriend and the byproduct of that “longtime” enjoy a simple yet complicated life of “comings and goings” late night tuck-ins and early morning “breakfast with daddy” moments chock full of wisdom from “Mornings with Whitey” – where he delicately explains to little “Whitey” when and how to deliver a sock in the eye and other wistful nuggets.
Along the way, the venerable Benedict Cumberbatch portrays the long-suffering brother, Bill Bulger; described by some in the movie as the “most powerful man in Massachusetts…” though never described as such within earshot of James Bulger. Cumberbatch appears at times as polished and demure as Cape Cod, yet deep in his veins a running battle ensues – what does he know and when did he know it? The two brothers share only a handful of scenes together, I suppose the juxtaposition is just to great or too easy- as neither star outshines the other. The implication throughout, though unsaid and certainly unseen is that Bill Bulger shelters or mitigates Whitey, choosing to look kindly as opposed to critically as his brother’s crimes become more emboldened and Whitey slips into legend and infamy. The movie leaves questions and the story suffers as a direct result – how did Bill become golden and James become rotten?
As for the period look and feel, this movie reeks of the 1970’s, plaid pants, big lapels, crooked cops, slimy dives and diners. Beautiful Chevys, beat-up Buicks and neighborhoods in yellowing decay – hanging on to their Irish roots while slipping into the pocket of a few South Boston derelicts. Each to a man – a rat, informing, giving half-truths, lying, cheating, murdering right under the auspices of “special informant” and with the blessing of Agent “James, you can’t murder anybody” Connolly. While murder is definitely on the menu, it only moves the story to the credit of the Director Scott Copper. Violence is seen and felt, but you needn’t rush home and bathe afterwards.
Black Mass clearly shows the progression of Whitey Bulger from street hood to psychopathic killer. Just as it shows the misplacement of trusts that the FBI had in its star agents – so long as the results were in-line with their “best laid plans.” Johnny Depp as James “Whitey” Bulger – real, yes, really good – maybe… The sweat and swagger, the neighborhood hood’s descent into madness it’s all there. The ensemble cast; Depp, Edgerton, Cumberbatch – yep, star-studded one and all. The “true story” byline looms large and while truth dibs and dabs along, cherry-picked for maximum effect – it never fully engages the audience, you never want Whitey Bulger as a friend or foe and while you might spend a Saturday afternoon lapping up his Winterhill gang’s languid wisdom, you’ll likely walk away wondering: “This was good – why wasn’t it great?” If you find yourself stuck between The Perfect Guy and A Walk In The Woods – go see Black Mass and tell ’em Whitey sent you.