Beloved by many in the streets of South Boston throughout the 1970s and ’80s – and feared by just as many – James “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp) was the head of the Winter Hill Gang, a band of Irish criminal types. A known psychopath with a state senator brother (Benedict Cumberbatch) who had previously done considerable jail time, Bulger wanted nothing more than to climb to the top of Boston’s criminal underworld. He gets the chance once he’s approached by an FBI agent and former childhood acquaintance, John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), who wants to make Bulger a top echelon informant in an effort to take down the Italian mafia in the city’s North end. With his enemies out of the way, Bulger gets bigger and bolder while Connolly continues to keep investigations about the crime boss at bay.
Various filmmakers and screenwriters have tried for years to adapt the true crime bestseller Black Mass (written by Boston-area journalists Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill) for the big screen. It’s a difficult, almost unenviable task. The Bulger story was already complex when the book was first published in the ’90s (well before Bulger’s capture and imprisonment just a couple years ago). It was packed with various interconnected personalities and tangential anecdotes in Bulger’s life that would prove to ultimately lead to his downfall. It’s dense, and while the final results aren’t perfect, Scott Cooper’s Black Mass is probably the best-case scenario for making a film about one of America’s most prolific bad guys.
The film belongs predominantly to Depp and Edgerton, and the contrast in styles and temperaments works wonderfully. The prosthetics on Depp’s forehead might be a bit much, but he looks and sounds uncannily like Jimmy Bulger. Depp carries himself with menace and one hell of a poker face, a man capable of snapping at any minute. While Edgerton gets the harder role of portraying a cocky go-getter that quickly becomes a paranoid cover-up artist. Cooper (Out of the Furnace, Crazy Heart) directs with a no-bullshit sensibility that fits a mob movie quite well.
But what might be seen as the film’s biggest asset might also be its biggest detriment: It’s actually too big to fully work. It doesn’t seem like a film that was cast with the best people for each role in mind (save, again, for Depp and Edgerton), but rather something that aims to shock and awe with big names. A perfect example of this would be Cumberbatch, who looks nothing like either Depp’s brother or his real life counterpart, nor does he have anything even remotely resembling a Boston accent (and his attempts at one should have been abandoned). Kevin Bacon and Adam Scott get lost in the shuffle as Connolly’s superiors. David Harbour has little to do as Connolly’s partner until towards the end of the film; ditto Corey Stoll who appears late in the film as a new federal prosecutor who thinks Connolly is full of it. Jesse Plemons, Rory Cochrane and W. Earl Brown are stellar as Bulger’s closest confidants and enforcers. Peter Sarsgaard shows up for a brief bit as a junkie player in a Jai Alai scandal, something that probably could have been cut from the book-to-film adaptation. Daktota Johnson and Julianne Nicholson get to play the women in Bulger and Connolly’s lives, respectively, and they’re good, but largely forgotten about.
It’s all really admirable, and writers Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth have done a fine job trying to keep things as true to reality as possible, but at times it’s just too much. At least that doesn’t really kill the film. It’s just a distraction.