American Gangster: Johnny Depp menaces Boston in ‘Black Mass’

Mike D’Angelo

Three stars

Black Mass Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch. Directed by Scott Cooper. Rated R. Opens Friday.

At first glance, Johnny Depp looks remarkably unusual in Black Mass. In order to better resemble the real-life character he’s playing—notorious Boston criminal James “Whitey” Bulger—Depp sports a heavily receding hairline, and he’s also wearing contacts that change the color of his eyes to a piercing blue, plus other makeup appliances. It’s the kind of physical transformation that makes a famous actor almost unrecognizable. Depp’s actual performance, on the other hand, soon starts to feel uncannily familiar. He’s opted to make Whitey Bulger the latest in his series of vaguely inhuman freaks, portraying the man less as a typical gangster than as a Nosferatu-style ghoul. There’s violence aplenty in this historical biopic, but it often seems as if Whitey doesn’t even need a weapon, being fully capable of mesmerizing his enemies into submission with his steely, unearthly gaze.

That expressionistic approach tends to work against Black Mass’ otherwise gritty, ’70s-influenced style. (The film passed through many hands over the course of its lengthy development, but was finally directed by Scott Cooper, who previously helmed Out of the Furnace and Crazy Heart.) Bulger was apprehended in 2011, after spending 16 years on the run (and just below Osama bin Laden on the FBI’s Most Wanted list), but most of this biopic takes place between 1975 and 1985, when Bulger had South Boston under his complete control. In large part, that’s because of the deal he cut with childhood friend-turned-FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), who was so determined to dismantle Boston’s Italian crime syndicate that he allowed Bulger to operate with impunity in exchange for information. Little realizing what a monster he’s unleashed, Connolly becomes increasingly seduced by Bulger’s consequence-free world of wealth and power, enabling a reign of terror that destroys numerous lives.

As is often the case with such projects, Black Mass has no particular perspective on the events it depicts, apart from “here’s some sensationalistic stuff that actually happened.” If the film is about anything, it’s about providing Depp with an opportunity to embody an ice-cold killer, which would be fine were he not inclined to turn the refrigeration up to the point where Bulger starts to seem undead rather than merely vicious and amoral. Edgerton fares better as Connolly, providing a portrait of good intentions gone horribly wrong, and even turning in a credible Boston accent. (The same cannot be said for Benedict Cumberbatch, playing William “Billy” Bulger; in a twist too contrived for fiction, Whitey’s brother spent years as a Massachusetts state senator.) Had Black Mass focused more on him, employing Bulger as a recurring bogeyman, it might have had a stronger reason to exist.

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