Johnny Depp has always been the most reluctant of movie stars, a criminally handsome actor with an almost visceral distaste for playing the conventional Hollywood leading man. “Black Mass,” however, allows Depp to do things his way, and the result is some of the best, most chilling work he’s done in awhile.
A bleak, claustrophobic based-on-fact film that draws us completely into a dark world of crime and complicity, “Black Mass” stars Depp as James “Whitey” Bulger, a gangland patriarch and stone-cold killer who ruled the Boston underworld for years in large part because of a secret deal he had with the FBI.
This is an ideal role for Depp because it calls on both his formidable charisma — Bulger’s terrifying presence would chill the blood whenever he walked into a room — and his penchant for hiding in plain sight.
Using silicone prosthetics, blue contact lenses and a receding hairline wig so elaborate it had to be worked on in shifts 24 hours a day, makeup department head Joel Harlow and his team created a look Depp could disappear into and still be himself. His convincingly psychotic and homicidal Bulger is a Nosferatu look-alike, a bloodless vampire of crime whose performance is the essence of this film.
Adapted by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth from the nonfiction book of the same name by the Boston Globe reporters (Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill) who broke the original story of Bulger’s FBI connection, “Black Mass” does not hesitate to show us Bulger at his most murderous.
Director Scott Cooper has surrounded his star with an excellent cast including Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Kevin Bacon, Peter Sarsgaard and Dakota Johnson. A former actor himself, Cooper is adept at eliciting strong performances all around.
Cooper, whose previous films include the warm-hearted “Crazy Heart” and the disturbing “Out of the Furnace,” knows how to make the skin crawl, and his effective direction as well as the film’s frequent acts of appalling violence do just that.
If the final result doesn’t transcend emotionally in the manner of the gold standard of Boston noir, Clint Eastwood’s “Mystic River,” the fault is not in the execution but the unyieldingly oppressive nature of the underlying material.
Evocatively shot by Masanobu Takayanagi, “Black Mass” is set not in some generic Boston but in the specific environs of South Boston, or “Southie,” a clannish, heavily Irish neighborhood where loyalties never go away and Byzantine codes of honor are the order of the day.
Which is why one of the first things we hear is low-level criminal Kevin Weeks (Jesse Plemons) insisting “I’m not a rat, you understand.” He says this before he becomes one of several people interviewed by law enforcement who proceed to spill the beans about what it took to survive in the World According to Whitey.
Bulger, who hated the nickname “Whitey” and preferred to be called Jimmy, was very much a man with his own particular sense of right and wrong. He delighted in helping old ladies with their groceries but could turn unexpectedly menacing should an associate reveal a secret family recipe for marinating steak. To Bulger, murder was just another way of doing business
In one of the story’s numerous strange but true elements, Bulger has a brother, Billy (Cumberbatch), who — as a career politician who became the longtime president of the Massachusetts State Senate — gradually gathers as much influence in the straight world as his older sibling does in criminal spheres.
Things change dramatically for Bulger when another kid from the old neighborhood returns to Boston. That would be FBI Agent John Connolly, played by Edgerton with his trademark combination of bluster and vulnerability.
Obsessed with eliminating the Italian Mafia in the city and believing that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, Connolly decides to make a devil’s bargain with his old pal Jimmy Bulger. In exchange for information that would hurt the Mafia, Connolly in effect agrees to give Bulger a free hand in his own nefarious activities. “An alliance like this doesn’t weaken you,” he tells his new partner. “It makes you stronger.” Which, as we see in increasingly violent detail, is exactly what happens.
“Black Mass” makes sporadic attempts to humanize Bulger, including detailing his relationship with his mother and with the young woman (an affecting Johnson) with whom he has a child she is raising. Bulger shows up regularly and imparts The World According to Whitey life lessons like, “If nobody sees it, it didn’t happen.”
Finally, however, Bulger is a scary, menacing individual, and attempts to paint him as otherwise are doomed to failure. To see him simultaneously flirt with and threaten Connolly’s wife, Marianne (Julianne Nicholson), is to see both a nightmare in flesh and blood and one of the most indelible moments in Johnny Depp’s career.
MPAA rating: R, for brutal violence, language throughout, some sexual references and brief drug use
Running time: 2 hours, 2 minutes
Playing: In general release