Review: Black Mass

Depp is great, but we've seen this movie before.

On paper, Black Mass sounds exactly like the kind of story that should be turned into a movie: A notorious crime boss in South Boston is protected by a brother who’s a state senator and a childhood friend who has become an FBI agent.

I mean, we’ve got it all. Mafia! Southies! Brotherly loyalty! Sociopathic killers!

But here’s the thing: The reason this sounds like the kind of story that should be turned into a movie is because it is the kind of story that’s been turned into a movie, several times.

At this point, I don’t need to see anymore films about the mob, or about some street code of honor among working class men, or about a sociopathic criminal who kills with impunity, unless the film digs deep, tells me things I don’t already know, or depicts the action with a distinct and original POV.

Black Mass does none of those things.

In some ways, the film, which is directed by Scott Cooper (Out of the Furnace), is what you might call “prestige adjacent”. It looks and feels like an important film (although, despite a trailer that intentionally evokes The Departed, it doesn’t have any of the brio or ingenuity of a Scorsese film). It has the important cast (Benedict Cumberbatch as a Southie! Kevin Bacon in a supporting role!), the impeccable production values, the subject matter that has been tackled in other, better films. But the only thing great about the film is the performances. I guess that’s something.

Johnny Depp plays Whitey Bulger, who rose from small-time hood to big-time crime boss, thanks to an assist from his senator brother (Cumberbatch, improbably enough) and boyhood friend John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), who’s now in the FBI. The deal Connolly’s made with Bulger is this: Whitey will be an informant in exchange for immunity. Except he barely informs at all—either he provides information that has previously been disclosed or he only leaks things that will bring down his enemies. Basically, he’s got the FBI in his back pocket.

It’s hard to say if I ever truly accepted Depp’s “look”— the balding blond hairline, those oddly unsettling blue contact lenses, the aviator sunglasses. It’s more like I got used to it. But I certainly bought into his performance. He plays Bulger as the ultimate alpha male, a man who effortlessly commands a room with a combination of charm, steely nerve, and menace. Depp is compelling even when the writing isn’t. One of the funny aspects of the script is that it assumes, incorrectly, that there’s some sort of evolution of Whitey’s character. Early in the film, he has a son whom he loves, who dies of Reye’s Syndrome. Later, his beloved mother dies. Both times, a voice-over gravely informs us that “Whitey was never the same after that.” Except well…he’s exactly the same—he has no character arc. He’s just cold-blooded killer with affection and loyalty for very few who will smile at you one minute and kill you the next, without batting an eye. Some variation of that character is in virtually every mafia TV show or movie I’ve ever seen.

As the justifiably paranoid Connolly, Edgerton comes closer to creating a fresh character, but again, he’s let down by the script. Beyond his loyalty to Whitey, it’s not totally clear what’s driving him. At one point, the film suggests that he’s also been seduced by the flashy, decadent mafia lifestyle—“You’ve changed,” his wife (an excellent and underused Julianne Nicholson) says to him, describing his new slick clothing and cocky strut. But except for a brief scene in a nightclub in Miami (where Whitey has invested in jai alai of all things), the film never explains why Connolly’s changed. Like most things in the film, they tell us, they don’t show.

Stylistically, the film is solid but unremarkable, using the rather tired contrivance of having the story narrated by Whitey’s old henchmen (played by the likes of Jesse Plemons and Rory Cochrane) as they give their statements to the feds. The period details—the film mostly takes place in the 80s—are all on point. The supporting cast is rock solid. But everything about the film gave me a vague sense of déjà vu.

Yes, it’s a relief to see Depp playing a real character again, not another one of his circus freaks—I just wish he’d been given a better film to operate in. As comeback vehicles go, this one is strictly a midsize sedan.