Odd, to see a movie based on a true story that lacks this much urgency. Black Mass is a movie based on the life of Irish gangster James “Whitey” Bulger, who, in the 1970’s, rose above the Italian crime families of Boston to become the most fearsome mob boss in the entire country. He did this by becoming an informant for the FBI, an agency that, due to departmental corruption, protected him for decades as he ran roughshod over his competitors and yet failed to provide any actionable intelligence. “No drugs, no murder,” is what Bulger’s childhood friend and now FBI handler, Jimmy Connolly (Joel Edgerton) makes him promise. It’s a promise soon broken, but no matter. Jimmy is perpetually in his corner.
Bulger is played by Johnny Depp, in a solid performance that doesn’t quite dig deep enough to figure out this very peculiar man. That’s not his fault. He ably commands the screen and finds plenty of notes to play: petty and vindictive when he plots grisly murders, fastidious when he regards the riffraff he associates with, quietly disarming when tutoring his son in harsh truths, chillingly menacing when he tries to coax Connolly’s frightened wife (Julianne Nicholson) downstairs for a “friendly” neighborhood dinner party. The movie delivers a lot of great scenes for Depp to play, but it doesn’t tie them together to form a three-dimensional character.
It’s frustrating. Black Mass seems to know in its bones that it has a great story to tell, and then never quite figures out a juicy way to tell it. It structures itself around FBI wraparound testimonials of Bulger’s crew recounting their boss’ heyday, and that device quickly becomes a way for the film to mercilessly tell us things rather than showing them. Both Jimmy at the FBI and Bulger’s state senator brother, Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch) tirelessly protect the guilty-as-sin Bulger out of a twisted sense of neighborhood loyalty, but we never get a sense of how that loyalty works, what it means, how it’s felt or how it affects these men, who have to privately rationalize complicity in a parade of murder and drug rings. That’s a fascinating aspect of the story, as is the question of what drives Bulger and the mechanics of his home life (Dakota Johnson, as Bulger’s girlfriend, has one killer scene with Depp regarding Bulger’s son before the movie cuts her altogether). Or, we could focus on the nuts and bolts of how the Boston mob works under Bulger. But instead, we only get gestures in each of these directions. The story seems confused and has trouble connecting each scene to what came before and what’s coming up, as if the chronology of real life has frustrated it. Maybe it has.
It’s unfair, probably, to draw comparisons here to Martin Scorsese, who knows how to tell stories about criminals that require a lot of narrative juggling. In fact, Scorsese’s The Departed (2006) took its own inspiration from Bulger: the iconic Jack Nicholson performance was informed by the notorious mobster. Depp doesn’t try to emulate Nicholson vibrancy and color; he instead makes his version of Bulger a brutal man who operates at an insidious simmer. That works. But the movie surrounding him cuts too many corners in trying to encompass so many aspects of this story. You find yourself craving Scorsese’s energy and verve–specifically the way he tends to pack every frame with telling details, be they character or plot-related. The movie is too composed and relaxed for a story that should be told breathlessly.
Director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart, Out of the Furnace) does a solid job of wringing every drop of atmosphere out of the South Boston locations, and he gets good performances out of his accomplished cast (which also includes Adam Scott, Corey Stoll, Rory Cochrane and the invaluable Peter Sarsgaard). But Black Mass overall feels frustratingly incomplete. Somewhere there’s a three-hour-plus version of this story that achieves the epic scope and scale that the film tries for. But at a mere two hours, Black Mass tells a sprawling story but neglects populating it with characters you can truly care about.