It is only the smallest of exaggerations to say that there are only two types of scenes in BLACK MASS. One is of James “Whitey” Bulger either having someone executed with a vicious precision, or doing the dastardly deed himself. The other is an assemblage of characters having an extended conversation about what has happened to each of them since last they met, or indulging in an extended bout of exposition about the criminal doings of either Mr. Bulger or his nemesis, the Mafia. Unfortunately, the writing and direction of these two types of scenes plays with all the visual excitement and dramatic tension of the description I have just rendered unto you. This is a shame, because the cast is splendid, and the production values, particularly in the verisimilitude produced in showing gunshot wounds and the effects of strangulation, is exceptionally fine.
Based on a true story, and conceived as a cautionary tale about the thin line between cops and robbers who have grown up together, in this case the Irish-American enclave in South Boston, it fails spectacularly. Johnny Depp as Bulger, and Joel Edgerton as lifelong pal and FBI agent John Connolly are one-note characters, who go through the motions without ever experiencing anything resembling character development, growth, or depth of feeling. With no discernable anguish, it’s more like a fact-sheet than a melodrama, with the only moral to be drawn being that of the rule of good filmmaking: don’t tell, show.
The formula is an old one. Connolly, an ambitious agent with a chip on his shoulder about having grown up on the street, suggests to his boss (Kevin Bacon) that he use his connection to Bulger, then a small-time gangster running the Winter Hill Gang, to get the goods on the Mafioso that are moving into Boston. Connolly gets the glory. Bulger gets rid of his competition. The Feds get rid of the Mafia. Old ties of loyalty are not violated. The plan is approved, with provisos about Bulger not dealing drugs or doing any murders, with only a perfunctory fit of concern by Bacon that is yet another opportunity to indulge in exposition, in this case, Bulger’s roster of alleged crimes.
Of course we all know that won’t stick. We know this because the film is told in flashbacks from 1995, when Bulger’s associates are spilling their guts to the Feds about all that Jimmy (never call him Whitey to his face) did back in the day when he had promised not to now that he has a vague sort of immunity from prosecution. Hence the laundry list feel of the film. As for the characters, we need Connolly’s wife (Julianne Nicholson) to tell us that he is dressing more sharply, wearing a watch he can’t afford, and otherwise is no longer the man she married. We need Bulger’s associates to tell us that he was never the same after a pair of family tragedies.
What is shown is Bulger’s commitment to making sure his victims are dead. Each instance, alas, is a replay of the initial murder, with variations as to weapon, perhaps, or locale. Any suspense evaporates after the first three or four killings. Depp, with a sneer on his lips, and death in his blue-contacted eyes floats through the film but is never quite as interesting as the description bestowed upon him in a law enforcement document that declared him to be a ripe psychopath. Edgerton swaggers and blusters and otherwise looks very good in his tailored suits. Benedict Cumberbatch, as Bulger’s politician brother, looks lugubrious and declaims his speeches with icy detachment. The most interesting people in the film are Juno Temple as sprightly but dim-witted prostitute who lights up the screen with her ditzy yet somehow soulful effervescence, and Peter Sarsgaard as a frenetic coke addict in the wrong place at the wrong time.
BLACK MASS is a mass of wasted opportunities, as lifeless as its body count.