Black Mass, from director Scott Cooper, is a hard-hitting crime drama and a welcome return to form for Johnny Depp, as he emerges from a self-induced acting coma (nothing else can explain Mordecai) to create a memorable portrait of career criminal and South Boston hero figure James “Whitey” Bulger.
At times manipulative, solicitous, murderous, Depp’s Bulger makes it understandable why he inspires grudging admiration for some, unalloyed opprobrium by others, and hero worship in a select, but well-chosen few.
The movies spans the time period during which Bulger was able to run roughshod over the Boston police and the FBI by entering an unholy alliance with childhood friend and Federal agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton). Connolly convinces Whitey to supply information (at Whitey’s convenience) that will help bring down the Italian mob operating in Boston—in exchange Connolly will turn a blind eye to Whitey’s various criminal dealings (as long as these don’t include murder—and you know how long that will last).
Depp’s Bulger is a vivid creation; while Depp handles the violent eruptions quite well, the more memorable moments involve a quietly lethal Whitey with his own sense of ethics. One of the best scenes involves Whitey lecturing his young son (much to his wife’s dismay) on why fighting is good—so long as you don’t get caught. Later, at Agent Connolly’s house, he checks in on Connolly’s disapproving wife (Julianne Nicholson), stroking her hair, professing concern—and making it abundantly clear of the horrors that may lie in store for her. Depp receives stellar support throughout; indeed much of Black Mass’ power derives from the persuasively acted dilemmas of the supporting characters, namely Rory Cochrane and W. Earl Brown as two of Whitey’s top, yet conflicted, lieutenants; David Harbour, as an increasingly anguished FBI man; and Joel Edgerton as Connolly, willfully deluding himself that Whitey is helping the cause of law and order while essentially becoming Whitey’s lackey.
Black Mass does have some shortcomings, namely in that it downplays what might have been the most interesting relationship, that of Whitey and his brother, Boston Mayor William “Billy” Bulger (Benedict Cumberbatch going all Bah-ston). Cumberbatch and Depp are good in their scenes together, but one wishes scriptwriters Jez Butterworth and Mark Mallouk would have granted more time in exploring the tensions between a pair of strange bedfellows. That caveat aside, what remains on the screen is an effective melodrama with a revitalized Depp at its core.
At one point when I was watching Sicario, a gripping thriller from Denis Villenueve about a young FBI agent (Emily Blunt) who joins a task force to smash a drug syndicate (and one drug czar in particular), I was reminded of Sidney Lumet’s Night Falls on Manhattan. In that movie, idealistic D.A. Andy Garcia is devastated when he discovers —gasp!—the existence of corruption in the NYPD, and furthermore, that his father might be involved. Emily Blunt’s character is similarly naïve, as she volunteers for this squad led by garrulous Josh Brolin and soft-spoken but deadly Benicio del Toro, and becomes horrified at the violent lengths they’ll go to get the drugs and find the kingpin. Blunt is grim and determined, but the character doesn’t give her anywhere to go. Luckily, even though Blunt’s character is the nominal lead, the audience soon discovers that del Toro is really the main player here (with a healthy assist from Brolin), as a brooding “consultant” who has his own agenda, and manages to unnerve both Blunt and the audience in his pursuit of a certain drug lord. Sicario maintains a high level of intensity throughout, with well-staged, pulse-pounding action sequences and a pervasive air of hopelessness: the battle may be won, but the war is far from over.