Black Mass is a true crime gangster picture that doesn’t have a perspective or opinion on the events it recounts. It is content to grimly reenact backroom power plays and violent hits without caring too much about what it meant to the people involved, let alone using the proceedings as windows into their psyches. Set in Boston during the reign of crime kingpin James “Whitey” Bulger, a man who muscled out the Italian mob to become the city’s main source of organized crime, the screenplay makes clear the ties of neighborhood loyalty. This allowed Bulger to enter a mutually beneficial relationship with an FBI agent who once was a schoolyard chum, feeding information about his rivals while receiving a blind eye to his own criminal enterprises. This, along with a senator for a brother, allowed him to remain untouched for decades.
Director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart) and screenwriters Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth (Get on Up) start in 1975 and work their way to 1995, following Bulger from humble nastiness to king of crime before it all unravels for him. Perhaps assuming the target audience has seen some gangster stories play out before, the film is not particularly interested in the how or what of its characters’ schemes, and is never clear about the nature of his income. Instead, it features tight close-ups and slow zooms highlighting small shifts in negotiations and power plays. The recurring moments are either intimately creepy – Bulger staring down another person with intimidating intensity until they give him what he wants – or violent, with killings telegraphed beyond the point of surprise arriving with nonetheless brutal force. What are we to make of these murders? Only that they’re senseless, I suppose.
A large ensemble of reliable talents slurring through a variety of phony Boston accents keep things watchable and reasonably interesting on a moment by moment basis. Joel Edgerton is a slimy FBI agent too close to Bulger, protecting him from his law enforcement colleagues (Kevin Bacon, David Harbour, Adam Scott, Corey Stoll) and their suspicions they’re not getting appropriately valuable intel for all the damage caused. Jesse Plemons, Rory Cochrane, and W. Earl Brown are Whitey’s flunkies, who do a lot of the beating and killing, and drop in and out of the narrative. Benedict Cumberbatch is Bulger’s brother, affectionate but precious about keeping his office out of crime. And in this masculine environment of jockeying for power and speaking in deep whispers, a trio of female roles (for Dakota Johnson, Julianne Nicholson, and Juno Temple) exists to provide people who think this whole thing is dangerous but have no way of stopping it.
The proceedings are the sort of surface seriousness that coasts on the appearance of heavy subject matter without actually engaging with the thematic content that could exist under the surface. Cooper’s too interested in directing the logistics of the large ensemble, making sure everyone’s posing in the correct period detail and mushing their Rs into appropriate vaguely Bostonian sounds. The potentially fascinating story of corruption and crime is told through solid craft, Masanobu Takayanagi’s cinematography finely textured, David Rosenbaum’s editing steadily accumulating mild dread at the story’s most dramatic moments of threat. But there’s never a sense of what all the blood and backstabbing really means for the people involved beyond the simple facts of the case, and no foothold for either a formless “that’s life” truthiness or rigorous moralizing. It goes straight up the middle, ending up nowhere.
The mystery at the center remains the man himself, a presence and an instigator throughout the narrative who somehow remains stubbornly out of focus. How did he first rise to power? What made him the top Irish mobster? What did he think about what he did? We don’t know from this film. Here he seems to emerge fully formed from the shadows. Played by Johnny Depp at his least communicative and yet somehow as, if not more, affected than his Mortdecai or Mad Hatter, his countenance is entombed in artifice. Dead ice blue eyes pop against sickly pale skin, his face remolded out of makeup effects into something that’s always off-putting and unnatural. His Bulger is spooky, moving stiffly, holding his posture rigid, always frowning. He lurks in dark corners, most creepy when he stands hidden in an empty church nook, or when he interrupts a woman reading The Exorcist to calmly, threateningly run his hand along her face and neck.
Presenting the facts in a style synthesized and hollowed out from an amalgamation of every gangster picture that came before is one thing. But to plunk a performance like Depp’s in the middle of it – so artificial, so designed, so immediately signaling evil – is strange. It’s an interesting approach, more Karloff than DeNiro, more Michael Myers than Brando. He doesn’t seem like a real person. He looks like he should’ve been featured in Famous Monsters of Filmland fifty years ago. It makes impossible the notion we should take this seriously as a look into the face of real evil that men do. Besides, the movie’s too unfocused to even activate the Nosferatu qualities of Depp’s work. It’s a case of a project with a script, a director, and a lead performance working at cross purposes. It’s too shallow to be a weighty exploration of crime and punishment, too restrained to be pulpy fun, and too unwilling to follow an eccentric lead into a more overtly nightmarish direction. It’s competent enough to work scene by scene, but adds up to a missed opportunity all around.