Johnny Depp made a career of playing sensitive eccentrics and, in his latest role, the 52-year-old serves up something semi-different. Black Mass is the glamorized take on the true story of James “Whitey” Bulger, a ruthless South Boston gangster who ends up on the FBI’s Most Wanted list. Directed by Scott Cooper, the story follows Bulger’s transformation from a low-level criminal to a notorious kingpin thanks to a beneficial partnership with Special Agent John Connolly (played by Joel Edgerton). Under the guise of FBI informant, he assists Connolly in taking down the North Boston mafia—who were closing in on his territory—and Connolly helps him evade law enforcement in return. The character-driven Tour de Boston was filmed on location where some of the actual crimes may have taken place, adding to the unsettling tone of the movie.
Depp’s Bulger is a terrifyingly unflinching psychopath, and you can’t take your eyes off of him. With a penchant for disappearing into unconventional characters via prosthetics and distinct physical patterns, the blue contact lenses and hideous wig in this film follow a similar formula. However, Depp revels in the role of ruthless baddie and it’s a sign that he should do it more often.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect, aside from Depp’s charismatic performance, is the perverse relationship between Connolly (Edgerton) and Bulger. The agent’s unrelenting loyalty, stemming from a childhood event in which Bulger saves him from neighborhood bullies, finds him rewriting testimonies so that incriminating evidence against his savior from yesteryear ends up slipping through the cracks. That brazen hypocrisy in claiming to help the city while aiding and abetting a dangerous criminal will leave you itching to see him go down in flames.
Even on the backs of two strong performances, the film stumbles to really flesh out the complicated relationships between its remaining characters. Dakota Johnson’s appearance as Bulger’s wife is far too brief but she still manages to showcase her skills as a competent actress. Benedict Cumberbatch is also criminally underused as Billy, Whitey’s younger brother, who also happens to be a powerful senator. Apparently, no one thought that exploring their conflict as brothers on different sides of the society on a deeper level would be compelling. Cumberbatch tries his hand at the unique Boston accent and that takes some getting used it. It’s like a cat being thrown into a tub of water—startling at first and you hate it, but then you adjust to it and realize it’s not so bad. .
In their finest moments, talented actors such as Kevin Bacon, Adam Scott, David Harbour, Rory Cochrane and Peter Sarsgaard still couldn’t fill the void looming over the film. It lacked the depth needed make such a thrilling story like Whitey Bulger’s resonate with audiences long after the movie is over. Black Mass is nothing revolutionary, but that doesn’t make it a bad film.