As with any ‘based on true story’ film you expect a certain degree of artistic license to be taken with true crime story Black Mass. But, when the protagonist in question is one James ‘Whitey’ Bulger, who spent 12 years on the FBI’s Most Wanted list, it’s hard to tell truth from fiction. What is more Bulger has been used as the inspiration for Jack Nicholson’s character in Martin Scorsese’s rich cops and gangsters thriller The Departed. No small shoes to fill.
So Crazy Heart and Out Of The Furnace director Scott Cooper needed someone larger than life to fill Bulger’s intimidating boots. Someone who can transform into a role. Johnny Depp has been stuck playing caricatures of himself for the better part of a decade so Bulger was a deplorable villain for him to really sink his talents into.
And sink them he does. Depp is genuinely fascinating as Bulger, his beady, menacing eyes often breaking free into a naughty boyish charm as he riles up one of his many co-conspirators. So we witness Bulger’s story unfold through a series of recounts revealed by members of his former colleagues in The Winter Hill gang.
At first Bulger seems like an okay guy. Yes a criminal but one that helps little old ladies unload their shopping while offing anyone who crosses him. You know, like Robin Hood, if Robin Hood happily blew Little John’s head off when he upset him. But when opportunity knocks in the form of childhood friend, and now member of the FBI, John Connolly, played with arrogant ignorance by an always on-song Joel Egerton, Bulger is essentially granted carte blanche to do as he pleases. Throw in Whitey’s Massachusetts Senate member brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Black Mass has enough potential to truly grip.
But it never really does. Yes it paints a picture of Whitey’s crimes, the way in which he snitched to the FBI on his rivals to further his own shading dealings but it never offers up much beneath the surface story. In fact there is little on offer here that you can’t glean from Bulger’s Wikipedia page. Which feels like a missed opportunity given the source material, the tapestry of characters and the talent on display.
Cooper’s direction is functional, keeping the plot moving without ever really racking up any kind of tension. Little of this can be laid at his feet as the script never dares to delve into what makes Bulger tick. Furthermore the film often paints in broad strokes. Connolly and Bulger’s relationship seems to be based on a childhood friendship and later Connolly’s ambition to move up the career ladder in the FBI. But the end credits reveal he never testified against Bulger despite being sentenced to a very long prison stretch. So clearly there was loyalty there, a loyalty that undoubtedly allowed Bulger the freedom to execute his criminal masterplan at will. So why not explore it?
You hope for something epic to happen. Something to truly get us beneath the skin of Bulger, his relationship with those around him, who are happy to inform on him once the proverbial hits the fan, but we never get it. It’s fun spotting the famous cast, almost every part is played by a recognisable face right down to the fleeting characters, and it’s fun watching the fairly generic gangsters shenanigans unfold. But it never captures the sense of dark, violent essence that made Bulger such a dangerous man. Instead he comes across as a Goodfellas-light bad man.
A mildly intriguing telling of a well mined story Black Mass should go out in a hail of bullets but instead fizzles out.