Be wary of the film that confesses too much. Black Mass commits this sin regularly, using long and dramatic speeches to convey its “honor among thieves” edict in relation to the true story behind infamous Boston kingpin James “Whitey” Bulger (played by Johnny Depp) and his clandestine relationship with the FBI. Even if this weren't such a familiar gangster genre convention, one would only have to watch for a few minutes to understand the low stakes.
Confessions by key criminal associates inspire the film's traditional flashback structure. Director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart, Out of the Furnace) leans on this trope in the early goings to convey a subjective and skewed vision of Bulger, a brutal, pale skinned demon with slicked back thinning hair, rotten teeth and crystal blue orbs. The optometrist behind Depp's hypnotic contact lenses should get a Best Special Effects Oscar.
In the mid-1970s, Bulger was simply a regional player operating with his Winter Hill Gang out of South Boston, a working class enclave mostly made up of Irish-Americans. Around this time an ambitious FBI agent named John Connelly (Joel Edgerton), who grew up in the same neighborhood, approaches Bulger to form an alliance with the hopes of using his criminal contacts to eliminate Italian Mafiosos on the North end.
Getting in bed with the devil never turns out well, but that doesn't stop Connelly from continuously justifying his tenuous bond with Bulger even as the Winter Hill Gang expands its operations and brazen tactics under the FBI's protection. Connelly's concerned boss (Kevin Bacon) calls out the obvious, labeling their impotent unit “a bunch of Keystone cops.” It's true; Cooper's film understands nothing about the procedural aspects of police work, nor does it care to.
Eventually Black Mass only loosely abides by the rules of perspective for those small level hoodlums telling the story. Like Bulger and Connelly, the film does whatever it wants. A string of flagrant assassinations tells us that Bulger means business. Connelly's haphazard morality and delusional sense of loyalty is overshadowed only by his gym-bro arrogance. If Depp's performance is pure evil, Edgerton's is just puerile.
Interestingly, multiple bit players watching from the sidelines provide a more conflicted portrait of Black Mass. These are the ones both remembering back yet saying very little in the moment. Rory Cochrane delivers a stellar turn as right hand thug Steve Flemmi, whose conscience starts to get weighed down by all the carnage. An intriguing young actor named Jesse Plemons plays another quiet lowlife with cauliflower ear for a face. He exhibits more honesty with one punch than Edgerton achieves in his many self-proselytizing speeches. Scarier even is W. Earl Brown as John Martorano, a silent enforcer who killed more than 20 people for the Winter Hill Gang.
Depp's extraterrestrial version of Bulger will surely get much of the praise from critics. One scene in particular portrays the actor's creepy dedication. While visiting Connelly's house for dinner, he confronts the man's disapproving wife (Julianne Nicholson) with a not-so-subtle diagnosis of her faux ailments. The way Bulger's hands suddenly caress her face induces chills. Later, when a character labels him “violently decisive,” it's clear why.
Still, despite some strong performances and intense moments, Black Mass, which opens Friday, Sept. 18, can't overcome its ridiculous treatment of the FBI and Connelly's character in particular. It's never believable that Edgerton's character would be given carte blanche to do whatever he wants without some repercussions.
Whether or not Cooper purposefully let Edgerton run wild with caricature is ultimately a moot point. The performance is bombastic and distracting, more suited for a satirical romp in the vein of David O. Russell's lousy American Hustle. Depp, on the other hand, would feel right at home next to Jack Nicholson in Martin Scorsese's superlative The Departed. Never the twain shall meet.