There are more memorable scenes in “Black Mass” than in any other crime picture of this decade. But that is all this saga of Whitey Bulger, South Boston’s infamous racketeer and FBI informer, has to offer. Most of the scenes are well-written, all are extremely well acted by a cast that is headed by Johnny Depp, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Kevin Bacon, but the the damn thing doesn’t hold together. For this, the source material is to be faulted, with so much about Bulger either suppressed or abridged with lies. This trouble was evidenced in last years documentary “Whitey: United States of America vs James L. Bulger,” in which director Joe Berlinger failed to bring coherence to his random interviews that were mostly with people happy to see Whitey captured and tried, and eager to see him dead. Berlinger’s film did offer a fascinating look into both the physical and moral rot of South Boston, as does Scott Cooper’s dramatization, but neither makes sense of Bulger’s maleficious life.
Johnny Depp plays the character so coldly that it is difficult to get close to him. The picture has a reference to the fifty LSD trips he took as a guinea pig for the CIA while in prison, and Depp does a fine job of incorporating this into his character, although it sometimes crosses over into his earlier performance as Hunter S. Thompson in “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” However, for the most part, this is rigidly controlled controlled work from Depp, much deeper than his retro-gangster imitation in “Public Enemies.” He plays Bulger so close to the chest that we start flinching the moment he diverts a conversation with an unrelated anecdote, knowing that this is an overture to an explosion of homicidal rage. Even when he sweetly assists an elderly lady with an unwieldy load of groceries, we cannot be sure his intentions are neighborly.
The supporting cast, especially Joe Edgerton as John Connolly, the FBI agent who gave Bulger a license to kill in return for his providing incriminating information on North Boston’s Mafia. and Kevin Bacon as by-the-book FBI man who wanted to fry his ass, is excellent. As Whitey’s brother Billy, however, Benedict Cumberbatch, is stifled by the script’s failure to develop the relationship between the brothers. Considering that Billy enjoyed a political career that included the presidencies of both the Massachusetts Senate and the University of Massachusetts, the sketchiness of his characterization is understandable. Others, such as Whitey’s mother, come off strongly defined even though they have only a few scenes.
Director Cooper could have done himself a favor by not depending so much on ideas inherited from Martin Scorsese. Every time that voice-over narration horns its way into onto the audio track, the audience gets knocked into a GoodFellas replay.” Also, that rock and roll music worked perfectly for the young hoods of “Mean Streets,” but is completely inappropriate for the Irish thugs of Boston’s Blue Hill Gang. However, most of Cooper’s choices work well toward evoking the distinctive world of South Boston, which differs from East Boston where the gangsters tend to operate within their own ethnic crime families, avoiding rivalries with the Italian organizations.