There has to be a spot on the colour wheel for psychopath blue. You know the shade. The limpid aquamarine eyes that freeze your blood the second you see them. “Hello,” they say. “You look like dinner.” The moment we meet Johnny Depp in Black Mass, playing gangster James “Whitey” Bulger, those ice blue eyes send chills down the spine. I’m pretty sure you can get those contacts online: Murderer #1313. You instantly know this guy’s a killer and he’s barely said two words.
Depp is fantastic, inhabiting Bulger’s pasty skin with a deep, menacing performance. It’s such a relief to not see him swishing around with a grab-bag of rollicking twitches and tics. Fitted with a bald patch and prosthetics, his voice a drawn-out gravelly Boston growl, he’s barely recognizable. It’s as if Depp’s Hunter S. Thompson had metamorphosed into one of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas‘s psychotropic lizards, stranded in the anarchic evil of a very bad trip.
But Whitey Bulger is very real, the true story of Black Mass so crazy it defies belief. Back in the seventies, Bulger is a small-time hood running rackets in Southie, the poor Irish part of Boston. Ambitious FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) reaches out to Bulger through his brother, Senator Bill Bulger (Benedict Cumberbatch), with a plan of malignant simplicity. He wants “Whitey” to become an FBI informant, giving up the kind of street intel on the local mafia only he has access to. In return, the Bureau will turn a blind eye to Whitey’s own operations, giving him carte blanche to run his own show as he sees fit. “No drugs, and don’t kill anyone” are his only parameters. Like that’s gonna happen. Bulger goes for the deal, terming it an alliance, and an unholy one it is. Underpinning the unlikely team-up is their childhood connection. Connolly went to school with Bulger, and Whitey did one of his rare good deeds back them, sticking up for the kid. Common roots and the blood of loyalty, they drive the picture. “I ain’t a rat,” Jesse Plemons says in the film’s opening, one of Bulger’s hoods turning informant as the net closes in. But there’s so many rats, this ship has to sink, and Whitey himself is the biggest one. His elaborate con plays it both ways, hoodwinking the FBI while taking out the Angiulo’s, his Boston mafia competition. Only one of his lieutenants even knows the deal’s on, for if anyone found out, the hit to his credibility would be crippling.
Scott Cooper’s Black Mass wears its inspirations on its blood-stained sleeve. Cooper picks only from the best, evoking both the slam-bang montages of Scorsese’s Goodfellas and the muted chromaticism of Coppola’s The Godfather. What it’s missing that both those films have in spades is a strong central character who anchors the story. Much of the time, Bulger is the focus, but that’s a lot like Goodfellas with Tommy (Joe Pesci) as the hero… not a comfortable place to be. Connolly gets a fair bit of attention, too, and Joel Edgerton is excellent. But the split takes a sprawling story and spreads it even thinner. We never get too deep into either man’s head, so beyond the peculiar loyalty that girds their symbiotic relationship it’s hard to know what makes either of them tick. Bulger’s relationship with his senator brother feels like a particularly lost opportunity. Cumberbatch isn’t wasted exactly, but the conflict of family ties versus the preservation of his political career is barely explored. We do get some sense of what family means to Whitey. The loss of his son is a pivotal moment, relatively early in the film. The fact that his wife just disappears from the story from that point on only underscores Bulger’s cold-blooded heart. No matter how close you are, you don’t cross Whitey.
The thing that holds Black Mass back the most is its familiarity. It’s a worthy entry in the gangster canon, with a rich story, uniformly excellent cast and a fearsome psychopath glaring out from its dark heart. But we’ve been working this territory for a long time, from Scorsese and Coppola right back to James Cagney in White Heat (1949). No doubt, Depp’s Bulger belongs in the psychotic criminal pantheon. The film just never quite reaches his abysmally perfect level.
Black Mass debuted at TIFF and goes into general release on Friday, September 18th.