Black Mass (2015, dir. Scott Cooper) weaves a web of lies, deception, betrayal, and intrigue in its story of Whitey Bulger and the Winter Hill Gang. The trouble is that this story has been told often enough, in fictional, documentary, and cinematic form, that it really isn’t particularly interesting anymore. The most notable fictional version of the story (with much fabrication) is Martin Scorsese’s The Departed (2006), with Jack Nicholson playing Frank Costello, a character purportedly based on Bulger. In Black Mass Johnny Depp plays Bulger. He’s a fine actor, and he does well with the role, but not well enough. The script lacks energy, pacing, and momentum. When things begin to pick up in the film’s last quarter, it is too late. We already know where the narrative is going.
Makeup is a serious deficiency. Depp looks heavily made-up, especially as an old man, and his hair, what there is of it, is decidedly artificial and unconvincing. Other characters are similarly unconvincing.
The film focuses on FBI agent John Connolly, played by Joel Edgerton, who grew up in the Irish neighborhoods of North Boston. He was childhood friends with Bulger and his brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch). As an adult FBI agent he meets with Bulger and suggests that he give inside information on the activities of the Mafia in South Boston. In return the FBI will provide him with a degree of protection so that he can go forward with his own activities. The result is that Bulger, free to flourish as a mobster, becomes an FBI informant and also the leading crime boss of Boston. Connolly, whose initial proposal was suspect to begin with, becomes more and more involved with Bulger, until he’s implicated in the crimes. Although Bulger escapes Boston and is free for the next 12 years, before his capture, Connolly goes to jail for 40 years.
Friendship, national loyalties, personal ambition, whatever the motives for the connection between Connolly and Bulger--we’ve seen them before. Even so, Bulger as a famous crime boss, along with his extensive activities in Boston, should have made for a more entertaining film than Black Mass proves to be.