“Southie kids went from playing cops and robbers in the playground to doing it for real on the streets,” says Kevin Weeks (Jesse Plemons), “and like on the playground sometimes it was hard to tell who was who.”
It’s not that hard, really. Not in “Black Mass” anyway. The story of Jimmy ‘Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp), the crime lord-turned-FBI-informant who ruled South Boston and was the inspiration for Jack Nicholson’s character in “The Departed,” is populated by bad men who do terrible things.
Bulger himself was a community minded cold-blooded killer. He loved his neighbourhood, kids, cats and choking people to death with his bare hands. He was, in the words of FBI agent Charles McGuire (Kevin Bacon) a “ripened psychopath.”
“It’s not what you do,” Bulger says, “it’s when and where you do it. If no one sees it didn’t happen.”
“Black Mass” is a gangster thriller in the same vein as ”Goodfellas.” It follows a familiar pattern, the rise, fall and eventual ratting out of a crime boss, but provides more than enough underworld intrigue to keep things interesting. Depp is all coiled menace, a dark-eyed malevolent force capable of helping an old neighbourhood woman with her groceries one moment and killing an old friend the next. He’s unpredictable in the most predictable of ways, but Depp makes sure that Bulger isn’t just an echo of Michael Corleone or Tony Montana by giving him some tender moments with his family, son, mother and brother. It’s terrific work and a welcome change from his recent, extended Caribbean trip.
This is very much Depp’s movie but it is populated by an array of interesting and well-performed characters.
Joel Edgerton is John Connolly, a Southie kid who grew up to become the FBI agent who convinced Bulger to become an informant. Edgerton is always interesting, often in supporting roles. Here in a large, showy part he is all swagger and Brut cologne.
As the assorted bad guys and crooked FBI agents Jesse Plemons, Rory Cochrane, Peter Sarsgaard bring the scuzz, but while this is a very male movie, there are three solid performances from the female cast. As Connolly’s wife Julianne Nicholson brings the right amount of scepticism about being airlifted into a world she doesn’t understand and Juno Temple is heartbreaking as a street waif who makes the mistake of trusting Whitey. Dakota Johnson, as Bulger’s common law wife Lindsey Cyr, stands out, riding the line between steeliness and sweetness in her scenes with Depp.
The gangster saga may be the great American movie genre. From Howard Hawks and William A. Wellman to Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, bullets and bangers have been a staple on the big screen. “Black Mass” is another piece of that puzzle, but unlike “Scarface” or “The Godfather” it doesn’t glamourize gang life—this is the underworld’s more down-and-dirty side—but neither does it break much new ground. Perhaps given the extensive Hollywood history of on-screen thuggery there aren’t many new ways to present the rise-and-fall story but director Scott Cooper, Depp and cast at least keep it compelling.