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Black Mass

Scott Cooper’s well-made docudrama about Boston gangster Whitey Bulger teaches us nothing new about anything

For a quarter-century now, since Edward Scissorhands, Johnny Depp has been a tabula rasa of film acting: With each performance, he becomes something unrecognizably strange and elusive, and I’ve always wondered whether there’s a whole person behind the masks, or if the performances complete him. 

In Black Mass, Depp portrays the sanguinary Boston gangster James “Whitey” Bulger, who got away with his crimes (drugs, extortion, murder) for so long because he was also an FBI informant. Once the jig was up, he vanished for more than 15 years, only to be found four years ago in his dotage in California. He’s now in prison for what’s left of his life.

Depp’s performance is the most compelling thing in director Scott Cooper’s well-made and thoroughly superfluous story about “Southie” (South Boston) and its paradoxical mix of lovable Irish Catholics and incomprehensible crime and brutality. But we want to comprehend, and by telling the story of this particular part of Bulger’s life, Cooper teaches us nothing new about anything.

click to enlarge Black Mass
Hometown hardass: Johnny Depp as Boston’s Whitey Bulger

How did Bulger get this way? His brother (a miscast Benedict Cumberbatch) became a state senator and university chancellor. Black Mass compels only when we see Bulger kill people at point-blank range with a gun or (twice) with his bare hands. How can this man exist — and exist for so long? We’re accustomed to seeing Depp and his delicate face in a state of flamboyance. In Black Mass, he’s coarse, vigilant and penetrating. When he talks, it’s a voice like any other (albeit with an accent), and not a put-on, like Jack Sparrow, Mad Hatter or Willy Wonka. It’s technically perfect, but there’s nothing to understand about Bulger because the script never lets us inside. 

Bulger got away with his crimes for year because his FBI handler was a childhood friend (now in prison for his cover-up), and so of course, the story explores the Southie meaning of values like blood, honor and loyalty. But in The Departed, Martin Scorsese adapted a Hong Kong crime drama to an American context with more originality and operatic effect than Cooper achieves in his all-American story. 

In his previous film, the rather over-the-top Out of the Furnace, Cooper displayed a knack for melancholic brutality. He could have furthered that project here in a more realistic milieu, showing us how such a person as Bulger emerges from such a place as Boston. Instead, we get a routine neo-cops-’n’-robbers procedural, with a masterful chameleon as its reptilian monster.