Johnny Depp is Excellent in “Black Mass,” but the Movie is Full of Holes

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.

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3 thoughts on “Johnny Depp is Excellent in “Black Mass,” but the Movie is Full of Holes

  1. I was hoping this would be good; glad to hear Johnny acted well–too bad the script was shoddy. No need to imitate Scorsese–is this better than The Departed? Best Boston violent film so far for me is Mystic River. Great review, Bill.

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  2. mystic river was an east boston story, as was the town. i actually liked the town better.it hought the departed was a degenerate remaike of infernal affairs. every scene was dine better witht he subtle japanese direction , and scorsese turned each of them to garbage with his hysterical vulgarization of them. this was much better than departed. it was very good actually. the only problem was that nobody knows enough about whitey bulgar to make a movie about him. the departed was not about whitey. i doubt the japanese guy who wrote the original script for infernal affairs had never even heard of him. some of the boston guys who worked on the movie may well have added some detains from it.

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