"Black Mass" bores without Bulger

by Andrew Kingsley | 9/27/15 6:05pm

With the 2013 arrest and incarceration of Federal Bureau of Investigation fugitive James “Whitey” Bulger, the notorious crime boss of Boston’s Winter Hill Gang, his canonization as a mass criminal and escapee had begun. This story finds its altarpiece in Scott Cooper’s “Black Mass” (2015). Based on the 2001 book “Black Mass: The True Story of an Unholy Alliance Between the FBI and the Irish Mob,” the film becomes a hagiography to Bulger and his empire, whose puppet strings stretched over all of South Boston from the 1970s to the 1990s.

While Whitey Bulger (Johnny Depp) is the high priest of this murderous mass, the film focuses on his clergymen, the entourage of murderers and pawns who followed him, namely John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), his childhood friend and FBI agent, as well as his brother Billy Bulger (Benedict Cumberbatch), the former president of the Boston Senate. The unctuous, ambitious Connolly lures Whitey into serving as an informant for the FBI, notably on the Anguilo brothers, some of the leading mafia members in Boston. In exchange for informing — not “ratting” as Bulger convinces himself — Whitey receives immunity from the cops, allowing him to murder, extort, racketeer, deal drugs and cheat the lottery while the FBI simply turns a blind eye. Despite the juiciness of Bulger’s prolific career, the film becomes less a biopic and more a detective drama, chronicling the FBI’s pursuit of the Anguilos, while casting the exploits of Bulger and his gang to the periphery of the story.

With the spotlight cast elsewhere, Bulger lurks in the film’s shadows and only rears his skeletal head for a gruesome murder or a covert deal. Like Hannibal Lecter — they even share the same glazed, vacant blue eyes and severe, slicked back hairstyle — his absence only entices us further, exalting his blood-soaked appearances while reinforcing his mysterious mythology. If it weren’t for his rigid South Boston straightness, one wouldn’t put cannibalism past him.

As if exhausted by his more typecast roles in the recent flops “Mortdecai” (2015) and “The Lone Ranger” (2013), Depp explodes with ferocity, channeling his oddity into insanity, his sanitary roles into a satanic ringleader. This is not Willy Wonka or Edward Scissorhands. After his son dies of Reye’s syndrome and his mother of old age, the Russian roulette with Bulger’s sanity intensifies. Bulger’s remaining humanity hangs by a thread — he lectures his friend on not soiling the bar peanuts with his dirty fingers then beats a mobster to a pulp — which makes him that much less predictable and, ultimately, more watchable.

The rest of the cast, however, cannot compete with Bulger’s stone-cold intensity, and they become dead weight. Cumberbatch fans will be disappointed by his rather neutered, perfunctory role, which could have provided more insight into Whitey’s etiology from Southie kid to criminal kingpin. Edgerton commands the most screentime — however, in the shadow of Bulger, he just becomes a slimy nuisance of an upstart, a sycophant needing to be “whacked.” Peter Sarsgaard, Kevin Bacon and Adam Scott all make cameos, but they too feel cursory and only dilute Depp’s presence with their stiffness. Atop it all, the film is structured around FBI interrogations of Bulger’s confidants, lazy narrative crutches which spoon feed plot summary to the audience.

Somehow, with jai alai league embezzlement, a cargo ship filled with munitions and enough stranglings and point blank shootings to sate any sadist, “Black Mass” still feels anemic, too focused on Connolly’s conniving rise to prominence to give Bulger his due. Eventually a new FBI detective (Corey Stoll) smells something rotten with Connolly and begins digging into the cover-ups, but by then Whitey has surpassed their incompetent backtracking. With a story so immediately cinematic, it’s unfortunate Cooper’s narrative felt so out of focus, failing to wring out more menace or capture the full scope of Bulger’s network. Bulger’s Massachusetts could’ve been darker, viler and blacker, but it was ultimately watered down by too many white-collars.

Rating: 6/10“Black Mass” is now playing at The Nugget every day at 4:10 p.m. and 6:40 p.m. and at 1:30 p.m. on weekends.