‘Black Mass” may sound like a classic horror film featuring Vincent Price or Barbara Steele, but it’s actually a modern crime film about a gangster nicknamed “Whitey,” played by Johnny Depp. Confusing? Yes, even more so when you examine its promo photos of a dome-headed Depp in aviator shades, which seem to promise “Fear and Loathing: The Sequel.”
Alas, Dr. Gonzo is nowhere to be found in “Black Mass,” but there is plenty of what he used to call “bad craziness.” The movie is based on the real-life story of James “Whitey” Bulger, a street thug who rose to control the Irish-Catholic neighborhood of South Boston from the 1970s to the ’90s with drug and bookmaking networks that spread much farther across the state and country. He was eventually indicted in 1994 but fled before he could be arrested, remaining a fugitive for 16 years — a feat worthy of Walter White from “Breaking Bad.”
Whitey was well known in Boston, surprisingly so considering that his brother Billy was president of the Massachusetts state Senate. Some in “Southie” (South Boston) considered Bulger a local boy made good, a Robin Hood figure, but almost anybody who dealt with him knew better: Bulger was a slit-eyed lizard who had no qualms about killing people and removing all their teeth. Viewers who don’t hail from New England may have never heard of him, but movie buffs should note that Jack Nicholson’s character in “The Departed” was loosely based on Whitey.
Director Scott Cooper sticks to the Martin Scorsese template for gangster films, with lots of ’70s fake leather and polyester fashion, mustaches and boxy cars, along with plenty of betrayals, cold-blooded hits and wiseguy banter larded with F-bombs. It’s all tightly edited to a cool soundtrack of tough period rock ‘n’ roll — Blondie, The Rolling Stones, The Animals — and, like “Goodfellas” or “Casino,” it refuses to moralize.
Bulger, played by Depp with a raspy attempt at a “Baahston” accent, oozes menace and has virtually no redeeming qualities. He’s the kind of guy who’ll kill his partner’s girlfriend — not because she squealed but because her drug habit makes her a risk. He’s big on the honor-and-loyalty thing but nevertheless feeds information to the feds, convincing himself he’s not a rat because he only gives up the Italian mob. Yeah, he loves his mother, but most gangsters do.
There are many ways one could have approached the Bulger story, but Cooper (and screenwriters Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth) turn it into a Faustian parable, with Bulger as the devil incarnate and FBI agent John Connolly as the man who sells his soul. Joel Edgerton plays Connolly as a guy full of bluster and ambition. He wallows in a moral gray zone, contaminating everyone he touches, including his FBI partner (David Harbour) and wife (Julianne Nicholson).
Connolly, who grew up in the same neighborhood as Whitey and is tight with Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch), proposes a mutual alliance: Whitey will rat out the Mafia, giving the feds a victory and removing his competition, and Connolly will protect him in return. Win-win, right? Connolly winds up so committed to his stoolie that he throws the feds off course, even as the body count rises.
“Black Mass” boasts a huge ensemble cast, with terrific actors such as Cumberbatch, Juno Temple, Jesse Plemons, Rory Cochrane, Peter Sarsgaard, Dakota Johnson and even Kevin Bacon, who all make brief but memorable appearances. The cast is so deep, and there’s so much more to the story, that it’s hard not to get the feeling that this would have made a great TV series.
As is, things are a bit rushed. Bulger’s years on the lam aren’t even addressed, and the female characters have maybe two minutes of screen time each, while Sienna Miller — in the role of Bulger’s real-life girlfriend Catherine Greig who joined him on the lam — was cut out of the film completely. A director’s cut may be worth waiting for.