"Out of the Furnace" director Scott Cooper's "Black Mass" qualifies as a gritty, atmospheric, but middling mobster melodrama that chronicles the life and crimes of James "Whitey" Bulger, a notorious Boston gangster with an Irish upbringing who evaded authorities for 16 years before justice eventually caught and convicted him for 11 homicides. Adapted from a thoroughgoing non-fiction bestseller by "Boston Globe" reporters Dick Lehr and Gerard O'Neill, this unsavory, R-rated, crime chiller provides "Pirates of the Caribbean" star Johnny Depp with a chance to atone for far too many silly, superficial comedies. Academy Award-winner Jack Nicholson did an imaginary take on this real-life sociopath in Martin Scorsese's memorable law and order epic "The Departed," a mob movie ten times more suspenseful than "Black Mass." Now, Depp stars as the infamous felon himself. Although he appears incredibly chilling as the bloodthirsty maniac who is currently serving two life sentences plus five years, nothing about Depp's performance reveals any insights about this heinous individual. Indeed, thanks to prosthetics galore, Depp bears a striking resemblance to Bulger, but nothing beneath his grim, tight-lipped portrayal yields a clue about the murderer's mindset. Reportedly, Bulger refused to talk to Depp about his life. Meantime, this is not the Depp that we have grown accustomed to in movies like the frivolous "Pirates" franchise, "The Lone Ranger," "Tusk," "Dark Shadows," and "Mortdecai." Instead, this is the Depp of "Public Enemies," "Donnie Brasco," and "Once Upon a Time in Mexico." As Bulger, Depp strangles a defenseless young harlot with a rope, beats an adversary to death with his bare fists, and mows downs an unarmed, but treacherous henchman with a carbine. Don't walk into "Black Mass" and imagine you're going to see something that will make you giggle with glee. Unquestionably, "Black Mass" constitutes a long overdue return to form for the immensely talented Depp. Critics have hailed his performance as Oscar worthy. As unforgettable as Depp is, the man who steals the show and delivers the best performance is Depp's co-star Joel Edgerton of "Warriors." Cast as corrupt FBI Agent John Connolly, who conspired with the real-life Bulger to shield him from prosecution, Edgerton emerges as nothing short of sensational. While Depp relies on prosthetics to impersonate Bulger, Edgerton shuns elaborate make-up and turns the tainted FBI agent into a sympathetic flesh and blood character. He gets under Connolly's skin and shows us what makes the man tick.
A profane, violent, but episodic crime thriller, "Black Mass" covers familiar ground. Director Scott Cooper, who also helmed "Crazy Heart," neither pulls any punches in his casual depiction of mob violence nor does he startle us with any surprises. You've seen everything that Cooper stages here in other gangster movies. Essentially, "Black Mass" is an empire-building crime film, but Cooper doesn't recount either how Bulger established his empire or solidified it with his intimidating reputation. Instead, he dwells on episodes that earlier movies like "The Departed," "Goodfellas," "The Town," "Killing Me Softly," "The Friends of Eddie Coyle," and the two "Boondock Saints" thrillers have done before and done with greater panache. Basically, the action unfolds in five year increments, beginning in 1975 as a number of Bulger's cronies cut deals with the Feds to save their necks. Freshman scenarist Mark Mallouk and "Edge of Tomorrow" scribe Jez Butterworth neglect to explore the psychology behind the treachery that prompted Bulger's underlings to inform on him. Meantime, Cooper focuses almost entirely on the relationship between Bulger and Connolly. The subplot involving Whitey's older brother Billy could have been left on the editing room floor. Incredibly, "Black Mass" omits some of the more compelling incidents in the page-turning Lehr and O'Neill book. Specifically, the filmmakers have altered the events that brought Bulger and Connolly together as conspirators as well as some of the crimes.
A convicted bank robber who did 9-years in Alcatraz, Bulger masqueraded as a Robin Hood-style gangster around South Boston, but his fellow goons weren't fooled by his shenanigans. Ironically, loyalty among these thieves is the first casualty. As the film unfolds, Bulger henchman Kevin Weeks (Jesse Plemons of "Varsity Blues"), goes on the record swearing that he isn't a "rat!" On the other hand, FBI Agent John Connolly worshiped the ground that Bulger trod and refused to testify against him. Connolly grew up in the same blue-collar Irish neighborhood as Bulger. Whitey intervened in a fight where Connolly would have suffered grievously without his support. Connolly struggles to convince his wife Marianne (Julianne Nicholson of "Kinsey") that loyalty supersedes morality. Nevertheless, her husband's adulation for Bulger repels her. Connolly sets out to recruit Bulger as a source, but Bulger balks at being an informant. Inevitably, Connolly forges an unholy alliance with Bulger, so the Bureau can crush the Mafia in Boston and he could claim credit for the demise of the Italians. Ultimately, Connolly sold his soul to the devil, while Cooper makes Bulger appear as sinister as Satan.
Distinguished by its brooding cinematography, authentic production values, and documentary flavor, "Black Mass" succeeds more as a tour de force showcase for the actors than a landmark example of a gangster movie. A top-tier supporting cast, featuring "Sherlock" star Benedict Cumberbatch as Bulger's brother Billy, who carved out a reputation for himself in Congress as a man of the people, surround Depp and Edgerton. Kevin Bacon, David Harbour, and Adam Scott play Connolly's eloquent, well-tailored, FBI colleagues. Harbour delivers a powerful performance as the weak link in the group of FBI agents who turn a blind eye to Bulger's criminal activities as long as he furnishes them with information about the Mafia. As Bulger's amoral associates, Rory Cochrane, Jesse Plemons, and W. Earl Brown will make your skin crawl. Peter Sarsgaard rounds out the cast as one of Bulger's sadistic but ill-fated adversaries. Nobody gives a weak performance in "Black Mass." Sadly, for all of his crime-does-not-pay sentiments, Cooper has fashioned a dreary, sluggish crime saga devoid of any cinematic flair or unpredictable spontaneity.