The more “dramatic” and polished and prominent documentaries become, the less necessary their based-on-a-true-story counterparts seem. Compare Joe Berlinger’s documentary Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger to Scott Cooper’s “Whitey” Bulger crime drama Black Mass, and nine times out of ten the former will seem more compelling, even without Johnny Depp playing South Boston crime boss Bulger.
And so it is that Black Mass, which indeed stars Depp in a performance generating awards talk, makes a complicated story coherent without dumbing it down (much), lets a bunch of strong actors do their things, and yet inspires little more than adjectives like “efficient” and “workmanlike.” It doesn’t help that Scott Cooper’s Black Mass must follow in the footsteps of more dynamic pictures like Brian De Palma’s Carlito’s Way; Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, Casino, and The Departed (in which Jack Nicholson played a character inspired by Bulger); and Mike Newell’s Donnie Brasco, which starred Depp as an undercover FBI agent.
Here Depp is on the other side of the law as a man described by the film’s G-men as a “kingpin,” “crime lord” and, more to the point, “a psychopath.” Cooper and Depp double down on that last one, nodding to Bulger’s benign public persona in an early scene of helping a little old lady with her groceries but thereafter depicting him as a full-fledged monster lying in wait. Depp becomes this Bulger-plus by sporting lupine eyes (thanks to eerily pale contact lenses), bald pate with slicked hair on the sides, nasty teeth, aviator sunglasses, and leather jacket. More than usual, Depp disappears into the role, but more by restraining his vocal tics and layering on a Southie accent than through his visual transformation.
Where Black Mass excels is in its true-crime telling (Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth adapt Dick Lehr and Gerard O'Neill’s book Black Mass: The True Story of an Unholy Alliance Between the FBI and the Irish Mob), which at least starts out taut before going slack. “Just like on the playground,” muses one FBI witness, “it wasn’t always easy to tell who’s who,” but that’s not Black Mass’ problem so much as fleshing out the large cast of characters. This proves especially true in the case of John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), the FBI agent who falsely books Bulger as a “top echelon informant” in order to create a mutually beneficial alliance between the two men.
The film covers two decades (1975-1995) in the activities of Bulger’s Winter Hill Gang and the Boston FBI office, giving work to such gifted actors as Benedict Cumberbatch as Bulger’s State Senator brother; Kevin Bacon, Corey Stoll, David Harbour, and Adam Scott as G-men; and Rory Cochrane, Jesse Plemons, Peter Sarsgaard, and W. Earl Brown as murderous crooks (the sidelined women include Dakota Johnson and Julianne Nicholson, who literally suffers at Depp’s hands in his least convincing scene). The modern gangster milieu means wall-to-wall profanity, bursts of bloody violence, and a this-is-how-it-went-down montage. Black Mass succeeds in its narrative function (though its most compelling “scene” is a coda of end titles character resolutions, that only works as culmination), but works a little too hard to make sure we’re scared of Bulger, whose actions spoke for themselves.