Stylishly bleak crime drama Black Mass parlays two standout performances and an excellent supporting cast into a memorable, gritty film experience.
The story of notorious mob boss James “Whitey” Bulger has become well known beyond its Boston roots. Jack Nicholson memorably riffed on the gangster for his role in the Oscar-winning The Departed. For years, Bulger was the subject of a modern day Robin Hood syndrome. He was a brutal criminal, but many in his South Boston neighborhood regarded him as some kind of local folk hero. In some corners, that image persists long after it was conclusively debunked.
But it’s a fascinating story. Based on the book by reporters Dick Lehr and Gerald O’Neill, Black Mass examines the rise of Bulger (Johnny Depp), from his mid-70s ascension to the top of the local criminal heap to his famous mid-90s disappearance, just before he could be arrested on a litany of charges. Bulger leveraged an “informant” role with the Boston FBI office, overseen by Agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), a South Boston native who grew up hero worshipping Bulger.
Connolly believed he could manage and contain Bulger, while being willfully blind to how much more profitably Bulger exploited the connection as he made his bloody way to the top of Boston’s criminal heap. Connolly advocated vehemently with skeptical FBI colleagues on behalf of using Bulger to help them crack the lethal Angiulo crime family. Bulger, for his part, almost immediately and notoriously disregarded the FBI’s “no drugs, no killing” conditions for their deal, using the information and protection Connolly provided to amass power. When the FBI began to suspect Bulger had no intention of delivering on his end, he came across with the info that led to the downfall of the Angiulo family, making Connolly a superstar in the process.
Black Mass isn’t an exhaustive account of Bulger and his circle. That saga is too big for a two-hour movie. Numerous important real life figures and events are omitted or elided almost out of necessity. Instead, the movie hits several key events viewed through the lens of the Bulger/Connolly connection. Important moments covered included the genesis of the FBI/Bulger deal; the death of Bulger’s young son with Lindsey Cyr (Dakota Johnson); the fall of the Angiulo family; Bulger’s involvement with the IRA cause; and several notable murders carried out under Bulger’s auspices.
When hard-charging Fred Wyshak (Corey Stoll) takes over as the local federal prosecutor, he makes bringing down Bulger a priority. This just as Connolly’s FBI colleagues reach the limits of Connolly’s obvious collusion with his “asset.” When Connolly’s conscience-stricken partner John Morris (David Harbour) provides information to Boston Globe reporters exposing Bulger’s FBI relationship, it sets into motion the events that would land Connolly a 40-year prison term and send Bulger on the run for 16 years.
The driving force of Black Mass is the stunning work of Depp and Edgerton. After years of puzzling choices, Depp finally returns to the kind of work that made his reputation. He disappears into Bulger, capturing that legendary, chilling stillness and self-possession that could turn on a dime. Bulger’s sudden bursts into violence and mania jump off the screen and yet somehow Depp never allows those interludes to become vulgar. It would have been easy to play Bulger solely as a monster, and indeed, he was in many ways a walking personification of evil. Depp manages to locate some humanity in the destructive gangster. Far from softening his horrific edges, those glimpses of a soul make Bulger’s crimes and violence all the more horrifying. It’s some of Depp’s best work in years, justifying the awards buzz that’s popping up around the performance.
In many ways, though, Edgerton is even better. He nails Connolly’s tricky psychology with a lot of grace, that dichotomy underlying an elite FBI agent who still felt like the Southie street kid admiring his local hero. Edgerton embodies the swagger and arrogance of Connolly as his star rises in the FBI, but also shows the cracks around the edges. Connolly defends Bulger loudly and forcefully to his colleagues, but the knowing fear is there at the edges. Edgerton shows Connolly’s desperation to believe in Bulger and his drive to climb the FBI ladder and the self-destructiveness of those competing-yet-interlaced ambitions. Edgerton mines some genuine pathos as Connolly’s fragile construct collapses around him. You feel justifiable contempt for Connolly, but also can’t help pitying him just a little. Edgerton’s ability to inhabit those paradoxical elements and make them relatable is astonishing. It’s smart, gutsy work.
The supporting cast is packed with fantastic actors and performances. Several actors do some fantastic work as key Bulger cronies, including Rory Cochrane as Steve “The Rifleman” Flemmi, Jesse Plemons as Kevin Weeks and W. Earl Brown as John Martorano. Harbour has some memorable moments as the passive Morris, happy to go along with Connolly until the pressure becomes too much. Julianne Nicholson is outstanding as Connolly’s wife Marianne, whose increasing unhappiness with her husband’s dangerous game comes across palpably. Stoll is a bracing presence as Wyshak, putting Connolly on his heels as he pushes forward the case against Bulger.
Johnson makes a strong impression in her handful of scenes, especially a memorable hospital confrontation between Lindsey and Whitey. Benedict Cumberbatch demonstrates his versatility, doing some strong work as Whitey’s brother, a powerful state senator whose connection to a notorious criminal doesn’t affect his rise to local political prominence.
Director Scott Cooper keeps the action moving briskly and efficiently. He’s smart enough to step back and unleash his first rate cast on the material. He brings a good eye to the story’s chaotic mix of inner city shabbiness contrasted against various organs of power. Black Mass carries a gritty, washed out feel that matches the setting and material quite effectively. Special mention to the wardrobe, hair and make-up teams, whose dead-on work perfectly captures the garish period styles. The art direction also does a wonderful job of approximating Boston in all its mid-1970s/early 1980s grunge.
Black Mass isn’t the definitive saga of the Boston crime scene. But as a portrait of two crucial figures in that story, it packs a bleak, compelling power.
Originally published at thunderalleybcpcom.ipage.com on September 21, 2015.