|Johnny Depp as James “Whitey” Bulger, in Black Mass.|
As James “Whitey” Bulger in Black Mass, Johnny Depp levels a cobra’s hooded gaze at his enemies and at those he suspects might become his enemies. That isn’t much of a distinction, and it doesn’t take much to cross it. Depp gives a thoughtful, intelligent performance as a charismatic sociopath, and in some scenes he’s very frightening. But he needs more colors, and I don’t think that’s his fault but the fault of the screenplay, which Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth culled from Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill’s book Whitey: The Life of America’s Most Notorious Mob Boss. I haven’t read the source material, but Depp is obviously faithful to the Bulger you saw in the news every day during his 2013 trial and who emerges in last year’s riveting documentary Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger. The prosthetics have transformed Depp’s face so that he looks eerily like Bulger, but this kind of real-person camouflage, impressive as it is, always misses the point. (God knows it did when Steve Carell was buried under his make-up in Foxcatcher: the combination of Carell’s vocal tics and that artificial face, constructed to replicate that of a true-life lunatic most people couldn’t identify anyway, made him look and sound like an automaton.) Black Mass, which was directed by Scott Cooper, is a prestige project, carefully assembled and made with obvious integrity. But it would be a more satisfying movie if Depp were slyer, more ironic – if he loosened up and had more fun with the part. You don’t want Jack Nicholson’s Bulger-inspired turn in The Departed, whose behavior was so clownish and preposterous that you couldn’t believe his gang didn’t just stage an insurrection and take him out, but you do need to get more of a sense of the character’s charm and of an outrageousness that isn’t just linked to a pathological taste for violence.
One might imagine that this last would come from his relationship with John Connolly (Joel Edgerton). Connolly was the Boston federal agent who talked his boss, Charles McGuire (Kevin Bacon), into letting him run Bulger – whom Connolly had known all his life from the neighborhood (South Boston) – as an informant and then became so tight with Bulger’s organization that he was effectively an accessory, protecting him from prosecution and letting him know when the FBI had gleaned information from any of Bulger’s associates. (They wound up dead, of course.) Connolly, who became so enamored of Whitey and so thrilled at being let into the inner circle that he stopped operating as a Fed at all, is the linchpin of this jaw-dropping story. But the filmmakers don’t treat him with much humor, and Edgerton, to put it mildly, isn’t a witty performer. At his best, in the thriller The Gift (which he also wrote and directed), he can be competent but uninteresting; at his worst, here and in Warrior, he’s a blowhard, a phony. Edgerton’s Connolly is so transparent that you can’t believe he gets away with being Bulger’s informant, instead of the other way around, as long as he does. (He fakes his reports so it looks as if Bulger is providing a steady stream of intel; the bureau finally catches on that he’s simply been cribbing notes from other informants’ files.) Mallouk and Butterworth’s script sells it as plausible by making the Feds just as coarse and hot-headed as Whitey and his thugs; it’s the movie’s single running gag, but it grows tiresome. So does the language: all those “fuck you, motherfuckers” made my eyes glaze over. It seems incredible to me that, nearly half a century after American movies first got away with using the word “fuck,” Hollywood writers still write profane dialogue like freshmen in a creative writing class who’ve just discovered that no one is going to censor them. In some movies, especially action pictures that pass themselves off as gritty and authentic, I get so bored listening to the dialogue that I start counting the obscenities. I’m sure that gangsters and Feds really talk this way, but realist writers who know what they’re doing shape the lines that come out of their characters’ mouths so that they’re not just uninspired banalities. And Butterworth understands that, for God’s sake: he wrote the play Jerusalem, which boasts a bardic use of language. But here he and Mallouk don’t do much more with it than the writers of the dumbest action pictures.
Black Mass – a title that illuminates nothing about the movie it’s attached to – isn’t negligible, however. It’s directed with considerable skill, though I would have opted for more visual variety. (The cinematographer is Masanobu Takayanagi.) Scott Cooper directed Crazy Heart from his own screenplay, and there – though his focus was clearly on serving the script – he gave the actors, especially Jeff Bridges and Maggie Gyllenhaal, the space they needed to give rich, detailed performances. And in his next movie, Out of the Furnace, which barely got a release, you could see him making the transition from writer to director: the script (also his own) began well but never took off, while the atmosphere was vivid and the ensemble was terrific. He got fine work from Christian Bale, which isn’t easy to do these days, and Woody Harrelson was terrifying in the opening scenes. (That Harrelson wound up repeating himself as the movie went on derived from a problem in the writing.)
In Black Mass, Cooper’s direction is most effective in the second half, in two scenes in particular. In one, Bulger, invited to dinner at the Connollys’, goes upstairs in search of John’s wife Marianne (Julianne Nicholson), who is both alarmed and angry at her husband’s camaraderie with these criminals and, after putting supper on the table, feigns illness to get out of having to sit with them. With his sociopath’s radar, Bulger figures out what’s up and finds the bedroom, where, under the guise of concern, he succeeds in terrorizing her. This is probably Depp’s best scene, and Nicholson (so good as the cancer researcher on the TV series Masters of Sex who’s secretly dying of the disease) conveys with flesh-crawling specificity the response of a woman whose dinner guest displays the power he wields over her welfare. Even more memorable is the scene where Bulger strangles Deborah Hussey, the young woman his lieutenant, Steve Flemmi (Rory Cochrane) – who has also been dating her mother – has unwisely begun sleeping with. Hussey is a whore with a drug problem, she isn’t very bright, the cops have been interrogating her, and Bulger decides that she probably knows too much and can’t be trusted. So he gets Flemmi to drive them to a safe house and kills her in front of his eyes. In just a few minutes on screen, Temple is so touching as this hapless misfit that her helplessness against Bulger breaks your heart: she’s like a butterfly being crushed in someone’s fist. (This is the scene that really makes it clear to us that this man is a monster.) Cooper films it from Flemmi’s point of view: when Hussey cries out for him, reaches vainly toward him, and he knows there’s nothing he can do to oppose his boss, his face seems to sink into his skull.
Cochrane does first-rate supporting work in Black Mass, and there are other standouts in the cast as well. Peter Sarsgaard plays a druggy hood who, violent as he is, finds he’s so far out of his league when he starts hanging out with Whitey that he freaks out and runs to the Feds. (Connolly intervenes and sends him out to die.) Jesse Plemons (Landry on Friday Night Lights) is a bouncer in Bulger’s Southie club whose loyalty and toughness get him promoted to trusted driver. Corey Stoll is the straight-arrow U.S. attorney Fred Wyshak, who sees through Connolly’s bluster and the reliable Kevin Bacon is utterly convincing in a role that would be thankless in almost anyone else’s hands. In a subtle piece of acting but an ultimately unrewarding role, Benedict Cumberbatch plays Bulger’s brother Billy, president of the Massachusetts Senate. Other talented actors show up, too: David Harbour, Dakota Johnson, Adam Scott. The movie doesn’t work but there’s so much good acting in it that you won’t be sorry you saw it.
– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.