In the years since the launch of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, it’s become rare to see Johnny Depp on screen without a wig or a fake ‘tache, getting laughs from a vacant expression. His portrayal of real-life Boston crime lord “Whitey” Bulger appears to follow that trend, as it finds him with a latex bald patch and bright but impassive blue peepers. However, this time, the dramatic look is matched by a fiery intensity behind the eyes that rivets you to your seat.
Apart from giving us Depp’s best performance in years, Black Mass (directed by Scott Cooper of Crazy Heart fame) tells the kind of story you wouldn’t believe if it wasn’t true. For the best part of the late 70s and early 80s, Whitey had free rein in south Boston to trade in narcotics and do general bad-guy stuff thanks to a deal struck with the FBI by hotshot agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton). In return for being made untouchable, Whitey was required to inform on the Mafia operating out of the city’s north – a bargain that served him well for obvious reasons.
Of course, there were conditions. Whitey promised not to go around killing people, but inevitably took great delight in doing so. Depp’s performance is punctuated by sharp outbursts between periods of unnerving stillness when his eyes tell the story of murderous intent. Violent sociopaths may lack complexity but the predictability of Whitey’s actions is also the source of much tension – such as when a teenage prostitute (Juno Temple) gets into his car.
Connolly doesn’t display much dimensionality either, and that’s a serious problem for the film, as it means it lacks a moral compass. He is easily sucked into Whitey’s sphere of influence, reminiscing on their misspent youth together “on the street” and banging on about “loyalty” – and Edgerton could phone in the rest of his dialogue, too. Julianne Nicholson is more subtle as his fearful wife, noting that he’s becoming more like Whitey in the way he walks and talks.
The question of who is on whose payroll looms large. Whitey makes the point to his henchmen (Rory Cochrane stands out) that he’s no snitch, merely an opportunist who successfully manipulates Connolly to keeps his superiors (including Kevin Bacon) dangling for a lead on the Angiulo crime family. The fact that Whitey holds most of the sway in this unholy alliance becomes ever more palpable, but the dynamic between the two men doesn’t escalate in the same way because Connolly never does acknowledge – much less struggle with – this reality. Even after his wife is threatened, he is rationalising his choices.
For every notch in the murder count, there is a missed opportunity to flesh out the key players in Whitey’s circle. Getting the shortest stick is Benedict Cumberbatch in a surprisingly small role as little brother Billy Bulger – the most powerful politician in the State. What promises to be a modern-day Cain and Abel story is swept aside, with Cooper (working from a book by journalists Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill) appearing to accept the senator’s assertion that Whitey had no influence in his professional life. But even their personal relationship is thinly drawn.
The focus is squarely on the rise and inevitable fall of Whitey Bulger and his FBI colluders, creating a pacey, involving thriller that hinges on a disciplined turn from Depp. Cooper may not have the flair of Scorsese, but it’s just as well he doesn’t try to mimic his style. A dinner scene where Whitey berates Connolly’s partner (David Harbour) for giving up a “secret family recipe” is wicked fun, but comes dangerously close to parody. Mostly, he tells the story straight up and there is honour in that; it’s just that there are question marks left hanging. And just like a good gangster, a good gangster film shouldn’t leave any loose ends.
Black Mass is released in cinemas on Friday 27 November