Based on a true story, Black Mass sees Johnny Depp made up as a balding and paunchy James “Whitey” Bulger. The film follows Bulger’s ascent from small-time hood to crime-lord of South Boston. A journey made possible by the FBI.
Early in the film, the Feds offer Bulger a sweet deal. In exchange for information on the Italian mob in North Boston, the FBI leave Bulger’s crew alone. Even better, they eliminate the competition. Best of all, Bulger’s FBI handler is a South Boston native who idolizes him.
All the FBI ask is that Bulger not kill anyone.
But of course, Bulger kills people. He executes one of his lackeys. His gang somehow gets involved in Jai Alai and Bulger orders the commissioner killed. He strangles a young girl who may have talked to the cops.
This last murder was where the film lost me. It’s late in the film and the script introduces the girl only for Bulger to kill her five minutes later. The scene plays like something out of a horror movie and does nothing to build characterization or advance the plot.
We also meet Bulger’s younger brother, a state senator played by Benedict Cumberbatch. Cumberbatch is good casting. His Boston accent may be jarring, but he’s believable as Depp’s brother. While both men seem too slight for their parts, they’re convincing as family.
The film invites comparisons with Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990) and The Departed (2006), but these comparisons underscore Black Mass’s weakness: Bulger isn’t a compelling character.
We see Bulger build his empire, yet have no idea how he spends a typical day. He makes piles of money but, aside from a pair of cowboy boots, we never see him spend it. He suffers what we’re told are life-changing tragedies, yet seems unfazed.
Depp tries as Bulger, but he can’t compensate for the shallow characterization. He can’t disappear into the character because there is no character, just makeup and an accent.
With no psychological insight, Black Mass feels hollow. We may learn much of Whitey Bulger’s life, but we learn very little about him.