Everything about Black Mass suggests its desire to take a place among the great crime movies. The slow, studied pace, the carefully thought out framing, the period detail, and the use of well-known actors in small roles are all evidence that director Scott Cooper thinks the story of Whitey Bulger (Johnny Depp) is something Very Important indeed. Bulger was the gangster who cut a violent swath through South Boston (“Southie”) for two decades; he ordered from the full menu of criminal enterprise from dealing drugs to running numbers, and he had no hesitation about violence with rivals or traitors. Black Mass focuses on the way Southie native and FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton, having a good 2015 with this and The Gift) recruited Bulger as an “informant.” It isn’t giving much away to reveal that Bulger used his relationship with the Bureau as a pass to expand and intensify his criminal activity.
The story that Black Mass is telling contains within it the film’s biggest problem. The screenplay (by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth) points out that Bulger and his “Winter Hill” gang were relatively small-time before Connolly came along, and that Bulger used the FBI as a means of pushing the Mafia out of Boston in order to expand his domain. The problem is, that’s all there is to Bulger’s story until it all came crashing down. Johnny Depp succeeds in making Bulger scary, but he doesn’t quite succeed in making him a person because there isn’t one on the page. There isn’t anything tragic about Whitey Bulger, only a dedication to using crime to make his life. The film stops to introduce Bulger’s wife (Dakota Johnson, whose character walks out of the story) and young son, but Bulger’s vulnerability is gone in the time it takes Depp to raise an eyebrow or turn his head. As the details of Bulger’s activities pile up - there’s an interlude involving jai alai and a miscast Peter Sarsgaard- it becomes harder to see Bulger as anything other than the villain in his own story.
The other strand of Black Mass involves Connolly’s machinations within the FBI to advance his own career and (later) protect Bulger and his state senator brother (Benedict Cumberbatch) from scrutiny. Both Connolly’s wife (Julianne Nicholson, the one female given something to do) and partner (David Harbour, very good) become afraid of Bulger, and his superiors (Kevin Bacon and Adam Scott) chafe at how slowly Bulger provides intelligence. Why does Connolly choose Bulger over the Bureau? Connolly grew up with the Bulger Brothers and the script suggests that neighborhood loyalty trumped his allegiance to uphold the law. (I actually wouldn’t have minded a prologue with the characters as children. ) Joel Edgerton skillfully plays a man trapped by circumstances even as his life falls apart, but again there’s something missing here. Connolly’s loyalty to the Bulgers becomes too dogged by half, and his fate should carry more weight than it does. Black Mass is vivid and engaging thanks to Scott Cooper’s eye and to its large and lively cast - W. Earl Brown, Jesse Plemons, and especially Rory Cochrane all add quite a bit as Bulger’s crew - but Bulger was so purely about self-aggrandizement that we won’t think of him the way we think of Dillinger or Bonnie and Clyde. After fleeing Boston in 1995, Whitey Bulger was on the run until being arrested in California in 2011. What did he do all those years? That’s a movie I would watch.