James “Whitey” Bulger was arguably the most audacious gangster to ever walk the streets of Boston. For more than 20 years he played the FBI like a fiddle, using his status as an informant to have all those who stood in his way arrested and imprisoned, whilst he took over the drugs racket and left a trail of corpses in his wake. Indeed, so infamously ruthless was Bulger’s rule over Boston that for 12 of the 16 years he subsequently spent on the run, he was ranked on the FBI’s Most Wanted list just one space below Osama Bin Laden.
Black Mass, Scott Cooper’s austere adaptation of Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill’s acclaimed book, attempts to show us why Bulger was once considered to be as much of a threat to US security as the man who orchestrated the 9/11 attacks. Lazily framing the film with the confessions of Bulger’s crew, Cooper is clearly a director keen to tell a story as brooding as Bulger’s, but is frustratingly uninterested in engaging with it.When we first meet Bulger (an initially unrecognisable Johnny Depp), he already oversees much of the organised crime operating in the South Boston area. But soon an opportunity arises for Whitey to seize complete control; by assisting childhood friend and FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton, effectively edgy) in his attempts to bring down the Anguilo Brothers, a faction within the New England Mafia, Bulger’s own path to power will be clear. But informing comes at a price, and as more doors begin to close in both his personal and professional life, Whitey finds himself having to question all those he trusts.
In the months before the film’s premiere in Venice earlier this year, Black Mass was mooted by many as being a comeback role for Johnny Depp, who has predominantly found himself typecast as exasperating eccentrics for the best part of a decade. And to his credit, despite Whitey ostensibly being a one-note character, the star does bring a viciously chilly menace, enhanced by the beady eyes and bleached brows, to the role that makes Bulger a portentous presence throughout.It’s a performance that acts as an allegory for the film as a whole; it is every bit as dark, but nowhere near as weighty as the title suggests. Cooper’s direction is pedestrian and prosaic, an attempted emulation of Scorsese’s intense and invigorating style that simply comes off looking like a generic imitation. A pallid colour-scheme is relied upon to give grit to the atmosphere, while violence is the only avenue Cooper seems able to explore in his attempts to shock the audience.
The plot too, like the direction, lacks any sort of distinctive signature. Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth’s script is overloaded with strands that all vie for attention simultaneously, causing the film to feel frustratingly ill defined. There are a number of strong performances to be seen from the stellar ensemble – Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch and Dakota Johnson are all superb – but none of them, with the possible exception of Edgerton, are ever given any breathing room. From the start, the film is only truly invested in Depp, whose virile performance may just be enough to redeem his floundering career, but fails to vindicate this mechanical mess of a movie.