Johnny Depp gets sinister in bloody true-crime drama ‘Black Mass’
In between lucrative stints as Captain Jack Sparrow, Johnny Depp has had an unfortunate run of film roles lately. So it’s good to be reminded with a movie like Black Mass that, yes, Depp can act (not just decorate the scenery with entertaining shtick). Depp gets to do something completely different in this blood-soaked true-crime drama. Playing notorious 1980s-era Boston crime lord James “Whitey” Bulger, the actor creates a one-man vortex of pure malevolence that sucks up everything in its path, and keeps the viewer constantly on edge.
Scripted by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth (from the true-crime book by former Boston Globe reporters Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill), the film unspools as a morality play about good and evil and the dangerous grey area in between. The writers and director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart) lay out the story clearly in a series of interviews given by members of Bulger’s inner circle to the FBI, turning state’s evidence against their boss. What makes this an especially cautionary tale is the tacit involvement of FBI agents in Bulger’s burgeoning criminal career; he couldn’t have done it without them.
How this dance with the devil evolves is what Cooper’s film is all about. It’s a tale of two “Southies,” Irish street kids from South Boston, who grow up in the same neighborhood. Jimmy Bulger (Depp) is an ex-con who came up through the ranks in the usual small-time rackets—drugs, gambling, extortion. John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) became a federal agent, now working for the FBI. They haven’t had much contact since school, but in 1974, they find they have a common enemy—the “Italian mob” wreaking havoc in the streets of Boston.
Connolly convinces his dubious FBI boss (Kevin Bacon) to enter into a covert alliance with Jimmy, who’s supposed to provide information that his boys pick up on the street that will help shut down the mob operation. To persuade Jimmy, Connolly turns to Jimmy’s brother, Billy Bulger (Benedict Cumberbatch), a state senator who, like the FBI, sees the political advantage to getting rid of the local Cosa Nostra.
Connolly depends on old loyalties among Southies, forged on the playground, to keep this unholy alliance well-oiled and running. But, as one informant explains early on, “Just like on the playground, it’s hard to tell who is who,” between the good guys and bad guys. Both Jimmy and Connolly convince their men that they’re using the other side “to fight our wars against our enemies.”
But the increasingly psychopathic Jimmy (who participated in 50 LSD experiments in prison) manages to expand his operation from local gangster to crime lord by the mid-80s. The feds naively believe they can rein him in. (“No murder” is part of their deal, although Jimmy pushes back if anyone gets in his way—often doing the honors himself, and in one grueling sequence, with his bare hands. His mantra is, “If nobody sees it, it didn’t happen.”) Meanwhile, Connolly—gaining prestige and influence by cleaning up the Italian mob—goes from defending Jimmy’s value as an informant to ignoring, or discrediting any witnesses who try to tell the Bureau the truth about him.
The violence in this film is difficult to watch, and the audience learns to expect the worst whenever Jimmy comes onscreen. To everyone’s credit, no attempt is made to portray him as an affable, charismatic guy. Depp plays him as a sinister force of evil, and his performance is chilling. (The few times his Jimmy deigns to josh around with somebody, you know the other shoe is going to drop PDQ.)
Edgerton’s Connolly is appropriately callow in his complacency about what he’s willing to give up in morality in return for becoming a big shot-around-town. Julianne Nicholson is also notable as his increasingly fed-up wife. Cumberbatch doesn’t exactly resemble Depp’s brother (although Depp wears light blue contacts to help the illusion along), but he plays the glad-handing politician with style.
It would have been interesting to see more of the brothers’ yin-yang relationship. As it is, this is a crisp crime melodrama about the misuse of power corrupting absolutely.
With Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, and Benedict Cumberbatch. Written by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth, from the book by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill. Directed by Scott Cooper. A Warner Bros. release. Rated R. 122 minutes.
DANCE WITH THE DEVIL Johnny Depp’s performance is chilling and sinister in the crisp true-crime melodrama ‘Black Mass,’ which takes place in Boston.