(Scott Cooper, USA, 2015)
A strange agglomeration of gangster movie tropes, with a few novel ingredients but little else to recommend it. Depp is excellent, reminding us of his range and his potential for disciplined, uncanny performances. Here, he simmers, projecting creepy depths of evil and ambition. His makeover - hair, skin, eyes, nose, teeth - approaches the excessive, but his skill, his sheer presence, makes it work for him, instead of the other way around. Unfortunately, he's mostly acting in a vacuum. The other performers can't match his magnetism or his intensity, and neither can the film itself. Cooper seems unable to make up his mind - are we meant to empathize with Bulger, or at least to understand that some of his ruthlessness came from life reversals, like the deaths of his son and mother? These brief interludes into what might be called the "human" side of Bulger don't do much to diminish the impact of his killings, his thuggery, his naked opportunism and apparent lack of scruple.
It's in these scenes of violence and scheming that the movie really comes alive, so it's all the more disappointing that they often feel secondhand. We are treated to generous helpings of warmed-over Scorsese, a dash or two of Coppola, a smidgen of Friedken. We see people dispatched with chilly efficiency, stacks of money piling up, swaggering (if lumpish) gangsters, while a driving, period-accurate song plays on the soundtrack. These little jolts of adrenaline easily overpower the more brooding moments, when Cooper halfheartedly examines the nexus of tribalism, criminality, and politics that make South Boston an enduring source of American mythology.
Of course, it's all based on a true story, as they say, and it's in this dimension that Black Mass reaches its most interesting state. The fact that the Bulger brothers could have attained such prominence in their respective fields - crime and government - and that Bulger operated with virtual impunity for so long, create a kind of astonishment that is only sustained by virtue of its being true. Tonally, the astonishment works better, jibing with the familiar thrills of the gangster picture. But when it changes, abruptly and unevenly, into ruefulness, it quickly loses interest. John Connolly, played with gusto by Joel Edgarton, is portrayed as a tragic figure, undone by a mixture of loyalty, ambition, and moral blindness. But even if his story were better told, he'd still be a shortsighted schmuck. Transfixed by the sheer unlikliness of the story's events, the filmmakers forget to tell a story. Beyond the headlines, paradoxically, there isn't anything there. Bulger was a clever thug, who, with some good luck, became a kingpin. But he's a sociopath, through and through, a blank void. Scary, but shallow. The characters who become ensnared in his web of manipulation seem to be hapless unfortunates. There is a tremendous amount of material that could've been explored, but Cooper didn't know where to look. Instead, he goes through the motions of the gangster biopic with a professional but hollow studiousness.