Watching Jack Nicholson in The Departed it would be easy to think “Wow, this guy can’t be real” but that would be incorrect. Frank Costello was based in part on James “Whitey” Bulger, maybe the most notorious gangster in U.S. history. What viewers will also learn is the FBI and Bulger worked together for years before he was placed on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List. John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) and Whitey Bulger (Johnny Depp) grew up together in South Boston, but years later Connolly, now a FBI Agent, makes a deal with the devil. More accurately, he tries to place a rabid dog on a leash.
Reporting to the FBI is a hard sell for Connolly because Bulger takes personal offense to playing informant. Bulger killed men for giving up much less, but Connolly manages to convince the crime boss a partnership would be mutually beneficial. Both men see this as an opportunity to rid Boston of the Italian mafia, but only one of them is honest about how this will all play out. Being an informant means giving up intel on occasion, yet it comes with no strings. Connolly–and by proxy the FBI–look the other way while Bulger deals and murders his way into mythic status. Meanwhile, Special Agent Charles McGuire (Kevin Bacon) can’t explain why crime is still flourishing in Boston.
Black Mass spent several years in production while Depp and Edgerton both left the project, and now it has the unfair responsibility of being the movie that brings Depp back to relevance. Luckily the film shoulders that weight with ease. Yes, Depp is wearing another wig, but this isn’t like his other Disney work. Depp layers Bulger with nuance, playing a man who would violently murder members of his organization for being rats when he himself reported to the FBI. Those contradictions would trip up a lot of actors, but Depp handles himself magnificently.
It would be easy for Depp to crank out every scene on 11, but there is a reserve present that couldn’t be said for Joe Pesci in Goodfellas. Take a dinner scene where Bulger needles a FBI agent for the secret family recipe. What seems like an innocuous slip on the part of the agent turns unbearably tense as Bulger questions just how easy he gives up information. Then Bulger punctuates the exchange with a chilling laugh. Too often films depicting criminals glorify the lifestyle, but if Black Mass is a testament to anything, it’s what a sociopath Whitey Bulger was. That the FBI would team up with a maniac of that caliber to shut down the Mafia is an indictment not only of law enforcement but the misguided native pride of Boston. A monster was unleashed on society only because Connolly was more comfortable with a crime syndicate run by white men.
The film presents a great deal of information, but everything is presented in a brisk fashion and aided by a stellar cast. Those who don’t know anything about Whitey Bulger will be fine. Scott Cooper (Out of the Furnace) wisely surrounds Depp with the highly talented Rory Cochrane, Julianne Nicholson, W. Earl Brown and Kevin Bacon. As great as that cast is, sometimes Cooper focuses too much on his ensemble, leaving audiences wondering when Depp strikes next. A more present p.o.v. would definitely cement Black Mass as one of the defining crime films of the genre, but as it stands the film is a handsomely directed picture featuring a career resurgence for Johnny Depp.