Review: 'Black Mass'

Johnny Depp plays notorious Boston gangster James
'Whitey' Bulger in the new film, 'Black Mass.'
BAD, BAD BULGER: Johnny Depp plays notorious Boston gangster James 'Whitey' Bulger in the new film, 'Black Mass.'

Blue, opaque, slightly oversized and bulging contact lenses—the grade of eyewear you use when you want to make an actor a vampire. A nose sharpened with putty into a shark's fin. Head shaved past the point of male pattern baldness, making Johnny Depp in Black Mass look like a Kabuki performer. Top it off with fishbelly-white powder, black shading to hollow the cheeks, and a dead front tooth. Ultimately, Depp as Boston gangster James "Whitey" Bulger resembles Lon Chaney's Erik in The Phantom of the Opera. Comparing this makeup (not meant for a brightly lit or realistic film) to photos of the real Bulger, one feels a strange moment of sympathy for the killer. He was a bad bastard, but he wasn't a horror clown.

I'm in favor of Wellesian, over-the-top theatricalism in movies, but Scott Cooper (Out of the Furnace) goes over-realistic, despite the title. He makes the deeds of Bulger and his Winter-Hill gang a depressing roster of slightly escalating crimes—not only does crime not pay, it's not very much fun. When the boys go wenching in Miami, it's a rare moment of sensuality that allows us to see a dancer's bare back. From dialogue, we hear that Bulger is more than just hustling the cigarette machine racket and killing off squealers in his seriously porous organization—"Every one of those Winter-Hill punks is a double-crossing obscenity" says an FBI agent. Black Mass, starting to drift, gets a new jolt every time Bulger has to shoot a new leaker.

The punchline was that Bulger, too, was singing like John McCormack. In its most valuable moments, director Cooper explains the scandalous way FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton)—Bulger's boyhood chum from the Old Harbor Housing Project—used Bulger as a protected source. The agent got tips from Bulger that helped the gangster clear his path of enemies and expand his criminal empire from the south side to the entire city.

Cooper's cast almost redeems this limping, formless movie: Julianne Nicholson as Connolly's deluded wife, Ant-Man villain Corey Stoll as an unamused federal prosecutor, and Benedict Cumberbatch as Bulger's brother, a silky state senator trying to keep his hands clean. Jesse Plemons, as Bulger's muscular assistant—whose beaten-flat face fills the screen in the opening shot—is a vision of Irish wrath that can't be matched elsewhere in the movie.

Black Mass

R; 122 Mins.

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