Johnny Depp’s back where he belongs in “Black Mass,” hiding behind an accent and heavy makeup. He’s always more effective when he can shave his head, cover a tooth with a hideous crown, put in colored contact lenses, alter the silhouette of his nose, build a unique walk – in short, when he can construct a character from the outside.
He does that with Jimmy “Whitey” Bulger, one of the most notorious criminals in Boston history, delivering a portrayal that is repellently compelling, unvarying and grim. Those adjectives suit the movie, too: It’s a well-crafted, well-paced procedural drama about a monotonous psychopath.
We meet Bulger at age 46 in 1975, when he’s already a crime boss, and follow him for about a decade. We never learn what shaped him, other than a few vague comments about an impoverished childhood in South Boston.
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He never changes or matures. Two deaths in the family affect him for a moment but don’t drive him toward or away from his gruesome business. He has no apparent sex drive, no love of power or money, no connection with humans that isn’t financial. Like a cobra, he sleeps, slithers through his territory, kills and devours.
The story’s more interesting when it focuses on people around him, especially boyhood pal John Connolly (Joel Edgerton). Connolly, now an FBI agent, convinces his superiors that Bulger’s crime connections will help the bureau bring down the Mafia in north Boston; if they’ll give Bulger immunity from prosecution, he’ll agree to limit his criminal activity – no murders allowed! – and bust the Italian mob.
Of course, Bulger can no more refrain from killing than a camel can keep from spitting at strangers. So Connolly gets sucked into Bulger’s sphere of influence, letting him behave more and more viciously in exchange for graft and presumed “scoops” that rarely pay off.
Writers Mark Mallouk and Jez Betterworth carefully keep us in the game, differentiating among Bulger’s amoral sidekicks and working in a subplot about his brother, a Massachusetts senator (Benedict Cumberbatch). We’re left to assume the politician knew about his brother’s crooked behavior but distanced himself successfully enough to satisfy investigators.
Yet however neatly director Scott Cooper moves this story forward, much of it consists of the stone-faced Bulger assuring people he means them no ill, then strangling or shooting them immediately afterward (or hiring someone to do it). This parade of slaughter by someone who barely seems interested in his own fate grows monotonous.
You may wonder about the title. A Black Mass – the Catholic Church’s traditional Latin Mass, spoken in reverse – is used to summon the devil, especially for a witches’ sabbath.
Does the film’s name refer to one of those? To the huge knot of wickedness at the core of Bulger’s dark soul? The answer remains as inscrutable, and ultimately as irrelevant, as the protagonist himself.
☆ ☆ 1/2
Cast: Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dakota Johnson, Kevin Bacon.
Director: Scott Cooper.
Length: 122 minutes.
Rating: R (brutal violence, language throughout, some sexual references and brief drug use).