It would seem that the rise and fall of one of Americas most notorious criminals, James “Whitey” Bulger would have had enough drama and intrigue that any adept screenwriter would be parring pages for days to cull the chaff from the wheat. Instead, Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth give us nothing more than overviews of events, told over a decade with nearly zero character development. The film manages to move at a leisurely pace, and yet still feels as though each scene is driving the previous forward like a series of croquets. The Result? Bulger could be mistaken as nothing more than a sociopathic mass murderer (to which there is certainly argument), as the narrative never explores his further criminal background, the rationale for his ever heightened sense of paranoia nor what it is he is so keenly defending with the ever climbing body count.
As we move forward from 1975, through 1981 and into 1985, we have to thank whoever it was that thought to put placards announcing the advancing time frame. Without, this movie could have felt like it was telling a story over the course of months instead of a decade. The movie production suffers from an issue that plagues most films set in working class neighborhoods. Nothing, NOTHING, looks lived in. Every house and apartment clean and tidy, every office and bar quaintly stylized 70’s trend. Less we forget, every car is American, and be it a ’65, ’75, or ’85, every car shines like new. Nothing rusts in this Boston.
For a movie that suffers so greatly from its mundaneness, it does manage to keep the mundane evenly keeled in all departments except one: The acting. Black Mass gives Johnny Depp a role he embraces so entirely, you will forget for moments that it is he up on screen. And to his great credit, he does so with a character of almost no dimension. His opposite is just as thinly written, and Joel Edgerton’s John Connolly becomes utterly laughable as an FBI agent ever infatuated by Bulger, risking it all to exploit the man.
More ridiculous is Benedict Cumberbatch as Bulger’s Senatator-elect brother Billy. Cumberbatch, looking like he just walked straight off the set of the 40’s period piece The Imitation Game, is just unwatchable as he musters an accent that somehow manages to combine the worst Southie accent and Kennedy impression ever attempted. Even Kevin Bacon manages to be painful, his first dialog delivered with a Nolan batman growl. Dakota Johnson is passable, while Adam Scott and Corey Stoll manage decent performances simply by being background morale compasses. Most of the Winter Hill Gang is portrayed with such a vapidness that the viewer may never realize the gravitas they truly carried (the films first narrator, Kevin Weeks, would run the Winter Hill gang in Bulgers Absence for the remainder of the nineties).
There is a lot that makes you question what the hell Director Scott Cooper was asking of his actors or his script. We never shake the 1975 debut of these characters. Outside of Bulger’s aging prosthetics, Adam Scott’s hairstyle and ever slimming mustache becomes the first (perhaps only?) clue time is moving forward. But everyone else forgets the eighties are happening. Scenes from which the Winter Hill Gang members are confessing in interview ( which Cooper uses to frame the narrative) span into the early 2000’s but this is never made clear to the viewer.
Coopers attempt to develop tension often misses, and misses badly. Bulgers intimidation of Connollys wife in her own bedroom is absurd, as is Connollys outburst at the F.B.I. when he’s ribbed with homosexual slurs. The caricature of Connelly hits its peek during his self-introduction to DA Wyshak. And the death of Bulgers child and mother, the only significant life events in the film, carry almost no weight. But then, nothing about Bulger seems to have much substance outside whatever frame Johnny Depp occupies.
That all goes to the conclusion that this is not a story of the crimes of Whitey Bulger. It is a film that attempts to become a commentary on the morale vacuum created in the FBI and Mafia’s power struggles at a particular time and place. It tries to be revelatory by having villainous FBI agents, and Bulger a folk hero with a unique air of respect given to him by the film makers. The clearest thread this film offers; Connolly’s infatuation with Bulger is ultimately his downfall. The same can also be said of Cooper.