Movie review: Notorious Boston mobster Whitey Bulger immortalized, if not revealed, in Black Mass | Arts

Movie review: Notorious Boston mobster Whitey Bulger immortalized, if not revealed, in Black Mass

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Johnny Depp is notorious Boston gangster Whitey Bulger in Black Mass. - PHOTO COURTESY OF WARNER BROS. PICTURES
  • photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
  • Johnny Depp is notorious Boston gangster Whitey Bulger in Black Mass.
Black Mass
★★★
Now playing

Johnny Depp’s reptilian portrayal of James “Whitey” Bulger in Black Mass seems spawned from Method acting animal work. His translucent eyes and capacious brow connote a coiled copperhead, though his skittishness suggests one in the midst of shedding its skin. And like the wayfarer who stumbles upon an ornery ophidian, director Scott Cooper seems petrified of his star. He dares not detract focus from the danger on display, even if it means missing the forest for the tree snake.

Whitey (“Call me Jimmy”) Bulger and his Winter Hill Gang ran roughshod over South Boston from the 1970s through the mid-1990s, their Irish-American criminal enterprise fortified by an unholy alliance between Bulger and his Southie childhood pal, FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton). Connolly desperately wants to take down the Angiulo brothers Mafia family, and he’s not above making a deal with the devil to do it. So Bulger becomes an informant for the FBI while Connolly turns complicit and steers the Bureau’s gaze away from Bulger’s increasingly bloody lawlessness.

To his credit, Cooper recognizes the real story of Black Mass: the grotesque subversion of power formed in the intersection of gangsters, cops, businessmen, the media and politicians such as Billy Bulger (Benedict Cumberbatch), Jimmy’s brother and an influential Massachusetts state senator. In order to accomplish some good, Connolly enables evil for so long that, eventually, he can’t discern the difference. But this layered morality play is subsumed in a hail of headshots and dour mob-movie pastiche.

Like Bulger’s pallid appearance, Cooper drains the blood from the characterizations in favor of spilling it on the screen. We don’t need our movie gangsters to be charming like Cagney or uproarious like in Goodfellas. That’s equally dishonest, not to mention derivative. But even those based on real-life hoods should be intriguing. Though this is Depp’s best performance in years, and Bulger has a soft spot for his ma and son, he’s still just a soulless sociopath. The former foot soldiers turned cooperating witnesses that Cooper uses as a framing device fail to illuminate their boss’ twisted psyche.

A few supporting performers manage to steal their scenes, including David Harbour as Connolly’s guilt-ridden FBI partner, Peter Sarsgaard as a drug-addled lackey turned Federal informant and Julianne Nicholson as Connolly’s reproving wife. The rest are window dressing, including the besuited Cumberbatch, with tortured townie accents reciting endless variations on “Get the fack outta heyah!”

While Bulger is the snake in the grass, Connolly—ably played by Edgerton—succumbs to the forbidden fruit of fame under the delusion of righteousness. That might make him the true villain here. But nuance gets cast aside so Bulger can choke out a hooker or gun down more snitches and jai alai associates. Black Mass is earnest and exacting on the matter of what happened, but offers precious little insight as to why.

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