Don’t call it a Comeback.
For many years Johnny Depp was one of my favorite actors. Be it Ed Wood, Donnie Brasco, From Hell, whatever role he was in I tended to like him. Unlike contemporaries such as Brad Pitt or Edward Norton, Depp had a certain air of outlaw cool about him. That all seemed to change when the first Pirates of the Caribbean was released. Suddenly Johnny Depp was the “it” guy and seemingly every role he did in the ensuing years, with the exception of The Rum Diary, was just him playing a variation of the Jack Sparrow character.
Black Mass, (directed by Scott Cooper and adapted by Jez Butterworth and Mark Mallouk) is a return to the much more character-driven Depp of old. In it, he plays James “Whitey” Bulger, leader of the Winter Hill gang, and criminal scourge of Boston for decades. Bulger’s story is perfect for film, in that it is so outlandish that it seems like it should be fiction, but alas, this is not the case.
The film starts in the 1970’s when F.B.I. agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) decides he wants to form an alliance with Bulger. Connolly grew up in the same neighborhood as Whitey and his brother, senator William “Billy” Bulger (Benedict Cumberbatch), and he uses this as the bridge to try to earn Whitey’s trust. Connolly says that in exchange for information about other criminal factions in Boston, Connolly and the F.B.I. will look the other way in regard to the Winter Hill gang’s lesser activities, such as gambling, loansharking, and petty theft. Although initially hesitant, Whitey agrees to form an alliance with Connolly but refuses to refer to himself as an informant.
The bulk of the film takes place in the 70s and deals with Bulger’s rise from small-time crook to the most notorious criminal in Boston. Although there is consistent pushback and questioning at the F.B.I. about Connolly and Bulger’s relationship, the leads that Connolly gets from Whitey are good enough to keep him as an informant. As the movie progresses, Connolly’s relationship with Bulger begins to blur the lines of agent and informant with the two becoming friends, and this leads to Bulger becoming more blatant with his criminal enterprise. At one point he guns down his former associate Brian Halloran (Peter Sarsgaard) in broad daylight for giving the feds information about a murder Bulger ordered.
Eventually, the truth starts to invade and Connolly comes under the scrutiny of new U.S. Attorney Fred Wyshak (Corey Stoll), who begins to suspect that Connolly might not be telling the whole truth. As the dominos start to fall Bulger catches wind that the cover has been blown, and decides to skip town before he is taken into custody. In the movie, and in real life, Bulger is eventually apprehended in 2011 while living in California. He had been on the run since late 1994, and on the F.B.I.’s most wanted list for twelve years.
Overall Black Mass is a good crime movie that knocks on the door of greatness at times, but never quite lets itself in. It drags towards the end and, unlike other true-life gangster movies, such as Goodfellas or Donnie Brasco, the ending is more of a fadeout than a climax. The film moves Connolly’s arrest back quite a few years to make it seem as if everything crumbled at the same time, but in real life he was already retired from the F.B.I. by the time the hammer came down. I wish the filmmakers had made the film a bit larger in scope and covered more ground, but what it sets out to do it does well. The performances are top-notch all around, especially Depp’s portrayal of Whitey and Edgerton as Connolly. It might not reach the level of a true classic like Goodfellas, but it’s right up there with American Gangster, and that ain’t too shabby.
Until next time…