The gangster film goes back to early Warner Bros. sound pictures, and the form hasn’t changed much as witnessed by the latest one, “Black Mass.” The gangster frees the viewer to live vicariously in a violent world of total amorality and instant gratification, then to enjoy the satisfaction of seeing the gangster’s sadism turned against him.
“Black Mass,” directed by former actor Scott Cooper whose previous films are “Crazy Heart” and “Out of the Furnace,” follows the old playbook with no remarkable deviations. The films of Coppola and Scorsese seem to be his primary influence.
What does set this film apart, being based on the real-life story of Boston crime boss James “Whitey” Bulger, are two people in the mix a fiction writer would hesitate to invent.
It is a fact that Whitey’s brother, Billy Bulger, went in the opposite direction to become a powerful politician, serving as Massachusetts Senate president and later president of the University of Massachusetts.
It is also fact that another kid from the same South Boston Irish-American enclave, a childhood friend of the two brothers, John Connolly, became an FBI agent. An FBI agent who convinced Whitey to cooperate with him to eliminate a common enemy, the Italian mafia, while Connolly protected Whitey, allowing him to expand his empire once his competition was eliminated.
You couldn’t make that up.
Johnny Depp shrugs off any number of recent performances below his usual standards to play Whitey, delivering one of his better roles ever. It’s not easy though because clearly this guy was a violent sociopath whose mind may or may not have been affected by LSD and other drugs he volunteered to take while in prison as research for the CIA in mind-control drugs.
The real-life man lacks any moral dimension or ethical compass so all that’s possible is a portrait in utter sadism. Nevertheless, Depp digs down to play Whitey as a man with street smarts who can turn on a dime in conversation or action: Friendliness can melt in an instant into someone probing for a weakness or to discover potential disloyalty.
Depp’s Whitey thinks he’s a man of honor. He can strangle a whore and shoot a man in the face but he’s loyal. He keeps his word and allegiance to family, the neighborhood, friends, associates and the IRA.
This the core of his being, this corrupt sense of loyalty that infected Connolly and, perhaps, even his brother, who never told anyone where his criminal brother was while a fugitive for many years.
Molten hate and contempt roil just below the surface of Depp’s character, beneath a makeup job that gives him thinning, brushed back white-blond hair, bad teeth and piercing blue eyes. There is a sensuality in his evilness, like that of a vampire, and even a theatricality not unlike Joe Pesci’s gangster in “Goodfellas.”
The movie, written by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth (from a book written by the two Boston Globe reporters who broke the story about Whitey’s relationship with the FBI), dishes up the usual Frequently Seen Scenes from gangster movies.
You get, for instance, the crime lord who lets his old mom win at gin rummy and has goons help an aging neighbor with her groceries, yet whose only seeming joy comes in hurting people.
He’s Little Caesar and Scarface and Vito Corleone. He moves up the ladder of a criminal organization until he rules. Then comes the inevitable downfall.
You never see the point though where he chooses this route while his brother chooses one so completely different. Same neighborhood, same household, same mother, yet different choices that go unexamined.
The movie does throw in the death of his young son and the LSD as clues but these are weak arguments. He’s a full-blown monster before his son died and he did take the LSD while in prison, not before hand.
Joel Edgerton plays John Connolly in an equally multilayered manner, a man of huge ambition that sees no moral boundaries as long as he’s putting away bad guys. It’s almost a game with him and the fact he protects bad guys to put away bad guys doesn’t faze him.
There is a problem though with the movie character of William “Billy” Bulger, played with silky elegance but a Southie accent by Benedict Cumberbatch. Billy is, of course, still alive. While he was forced to resign from his university post after he refused to testify in a 2003 Congressional hearing about the communications he had with his then-fugitive brother, the shadow of possible libel falls heavily on any writers who might speculate about his involvement with his monster brother.
The movie does show Billy knowingly take a call from this fugitive but that’s a matter of public record. Otherwise the relationship between these two remains a mystery in the movie, which is not the case for Whitey and John Connolly, both of whom are currently behind bars. (in Whitey’s case prison will be a permanent residence.)
The core of this movie, the three-way bind of “loyalty” among brothers and a kid from the neighborhood, remains fogged in. So Cooper and his writers deploy a top-notch cast into the scruffy South Boston neighborhoods of the 1970s and 1980s for punchy scenes of menace, mob killings and turf warfare.
It’s routine but nonetheless compulsively watchable. You know what’s coming but you’re glued to the screen. Peter Sarsgaard is the drug-addled businessman who knows what’s coming too when he tries to give up Whitey but gets blocked by Connolly.
Juno Temple is the teenage prostitute who knows too much and must be eliminated. Julianne Nicholson plays John Connolly’s wife, who grows increasingly wary of her husband’s involvement with such a clearly sick man until an immensely creepy scene between her and Whitey in her bedroom no less.
Dakota Johnson plays Whitey’s girlfriend early in his career who gave birth of a child that is snatched from his parents when he dies at an early age. Interestingly it is the scenes with the womenfolk that pack the biggest wallops.
The script is organized around testimony by Whitey’s henchmen after their arrest and their boss’ disappearance. These are played by Rory Cochrane and Jesse Plemons, guys that you could almost imagine in real jobs had their fates — and neighborhoods — been different.
Meanwhile Kevin Bacon as a special FBI agent rants against Connolly’s unholy alliance with the devil but he never rants quite hard enough. David Harbour plays an FBI agent who soon enough realizes what the deal actually means but he too fails to act.
Cooper has an eye for high impact for his crime scenes and manages a large cast of characters extremely well. He avoids fancy editing or over-the-top action sequences that mar so many crime stories in today’s cinema.
On the other hand, he can’t quite crack this story. The tale of Whitey Bulger and his involvement with the Boston FBI and his own politician brother never quite comes into clear focus in “Black Mass.”
Opens: September 18, 2015 (Warner Bros.)
Production: Cross Creek Pictures in association with RatPac-Dune Entertainment
Cast: Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Rory Cochrane, Jesse Plemons, W Earl Brown, David Harbour, Dakota Johnson, Julianne Nicholson, Kevin Bacon, Corey Stoll, Peter Sarsgaard, Adam Scott, Juno Temple, Bill Camp
Director: Scott Cooper
Screenwriters: Mark Mallouk, Jez Butterworth
Based on the book by: Dick Lehr, Gerard O’Neill
Producers: John Lesher, Brian Oliver, Scott Cooper, Patrick McCormick, Tyler Thompson
Executive producers: Brett Ratner, James Packer, Steven Mnuchin, Peter Mallouk, Ray Mallouk, Christopher Woodrow, Brett Granstaff, Gary Granstaff, Phil Hunt, Compton Ross
Director of photography: Masanobu Takayanagi
Production designer: Stefania Cella
Music: Tom Holkenborg
Costume designer: Kasia Walicka Maimone
Editor: David Rosenbloom
R rating, 123 minutes