Johnny Depp and Joel Edgerton in “Black Mass”

The buzz on this docudrama about south Boston crime boss James “Whitey ” Bulger is that Johnny Depp returns to form, and his performance makes it a winner. Sorry, but Depp’s skill and charisma can only go so far. The few characters in this film who are not thoroughly despicable or pathetically stupid – notably Bulger’s 6-year old son and the few women in the story – either die off fast or just disappear. All of the rest, including Bulger, are lowlifes I wish I’d never met.

Director Scott Cooper and screenwriters Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth obviously believed there is a large core audience for stories about real-life gangsters. “Whitey” Bulger’s story is well-known, but the film concentrates on his relationship with John Connolly, played flamboyantly by Joel Edgerton, a childhood buddy who became an FBI agent. This was new to me, and an interesting sidelight. Connolly sees Bulger as a ticket to his career ambitions within the agency. He is able to recruit Bulger as informant by promising to deflect prosecution of Bulger’s crimes in exchange for tips on the Boston Mafia, which should make him a G-man superstar.


Johnny Depp in “Black Mass”

All goes as planned for a while, but things start to unravel once Connolly gets a little too ambitious. As expected, the downfall is swift and irrevocable. Unfortunately, the way the story plays out is not particularly involving. We simply don’t care enough about what happens to these people. But even that wouldn’t be fatal if Bulger ever showed some sympathetic facets to his character to offset an overwhelmingly repellent rage and cruelty. The scenes involving his marriage, his son’s tragic death and the loss of his mother are truncated, and have no lasting impact.

This problem is apparent in the only extended sequence, which is also the most memorable. Bulger is invited to dinner at the Connolly’s, but Connolly’s wife, played by Julianne Nicholson, gets to avoid him  by saying she’s feeling unwell. While the men are downstairs eating, Bulger praises the steak and suggests that Morris, an agent at Connolly’s office played by David Halbour, tell him the “secret family recipe”, which Morris does, innocently. Big mistake! With quiet but terrifying menace, Bulger says that Morris could as easily have revealed his criminal acts to the police, and just may have eaten his last meal. It’s a joke, of course, as well as an homage to Goodfellas, but Depp gives it his own spin, and makes it fun.

Afterwards, Bulger says he wants to “check” on Connolly’s wife, saying he’s “concerned”. Bulger pretends to be examining her by slowly running his hand over her face and throat, but, again, it’s really an unvoiced threat. Depp and Nicholson make it creepily effective.

Soon, however, we’re back in the flat, familiar terrain of ordinary crime dramas, and the bloody rubouts get to be boring. With all of his dark and ominous flourishes, Cooper can’t hide the simple fact that Bulger is small-time to his core. Lacking vision, charm or a compelling back-story, he seems unworthy of our time. Perhaps it only proves a movie truism: when it comes to psychopathic criminals,  fiction is better. After all, “Whitey” Bulger can’t be blamed for being too dull for a good movie. Especially when compared to the classics. James Cagney’s Cody Jarrett, in White Heat, is as deranged and  violent  as “Whitey” Bulger, but what a difference! “Top of the world, ma!” is a moment that penetrates like Greek tragedy. Then again, with fiction, Cagney and director Raoul Walsh could present us with a man in unbearable emotional pain. This adds a much-needed pity, especially since the rest of the film was, for its time, almost unwatchably violent.

Finally, to its detriment, Black Mass distinguishes itself in two ways. First, these are the dullest bunch of hoods in movie memory. They only drink, blow each others’ brains out or squeal. That’s it. And, shockingly, not one of these sons of Killarney knows how to sing or dance. Incidentally the score, by Tom Holkenborg, is one long, monotonous dirge, and effectively muddles whatever impact the film would otherwise have.

Second, this is the dumbest FBI office I’ve ever seen. It takes them years to realize what a stupid idea it was to use Bulger as an informant, and even longer to see that Connolly was scamming them with phony  “tips” that he stole from legitimate sources.

On the basis of this film, Southie is a glum and angry place, which also describes my mood when I left the theatre.

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About the author

Michael A. Scott has been watching movies for as long as he could walk down the sidewalk by himself (and even before). I don't always love every movie, yet I founded this website to share my love of movies with people throughout the world.