Johnny Depp has been having his problems finding a hit recently. His last unabashed success was 2010’s Alice In Wonderland, but since then there’s been The Tourist, The Rum Diary, Dark Shadows, Transcendence, Mortdecai, the 4th Pirates of the Caribbean installment, and the major stink bomb The Lone Ranger. Even the recent Alice sequel landed with a thud after the original made over a billion at the box office. Sadly, the general malaise over Depp’s movies meant that people stayed away from his best performance since Finding Neverland (a personal favorite of mine). In this role he was the antithesis of the over-the-top strange characters he’s often played, and instead communicates the still menace of a coiled rattlesnake ready to strike. The movie is Black Mass, and the role is James “Whitey” Bulger.
Bulger was an Irish mobster from the south side of Boston who ruled the town from the 1970s into the 1990s. He got the nickname Whitey from his white-blond hair, though he hated it and preferred people call him Jim or Jimmy. Born in 1929 two months before the Stock Market Crash, Bulger was a handful for his parents, and his wild behavior included actually running away to join the circus when he was ten. In contrast, Bulger’s brother Billy excelled in school and grew up to become a politician, serving in both the state assembly and senate, and was later the President of the University of Massachusetts.
As a teenager Bulger joined a gang during WWII, leading to a reform school sentence when he was 14. After he got out, he joined the Air Force as a mechanic. Although his service record included several trips to the stockade for fighting, he managed to get an honorable discharge in 1952 after four years of service. He returned to Boston and his gang ties, and was incarcerated in federal prison for bank robbery. He served time in Alcatraz, Leavenworth, and other facilities. During that time he volunteered to be a human guinea pig for a medical trial run by the CIA that investigated the use of LSD.
By the 1970s when Black Mass begins, Bulger was firmly established in an Irish gang, but then events took an unexpected turn. A boy from the neighborhood, John Connolly, had become an FBI agent and was assigned to Boston. He recruited Bulger to help him smash the Patriarca crime family, the head of the Mafia in Boston. In exchange, the FBI protected him from investigations. This allowed Bulger to consolidate his power while using the FBI to eliminate his competition.
This may sound familiar if you saw Martin Scorsese’s movie The Departed. While the movie was an adaptation of a Hong Kong police thriller, Scorsese incorporated aspects of Boston crime history since the movie was set there. Jack Nicholson’s crime boss was (very) loosely based on Bulger.
But where Nicholson comes across as a dissipated slime ball, Depp’s performance is electric, and he communicates raw menace in the most casual of conversations. When they were filming Black Mass in Boston, on the same streets Bulger once ruled, locals saw Depp embodying the role and actually thought Bulger had returned. The menace also fits better with a man who was tied to 18 murders.
The movie was directed by Scott Cooper, who was an actor before he moved behind the camera as the writer and director of Crazy Heart, which earned Jeff Bridges an Oscar. He assembled a first-tier supporting cast that includes Joel Edgerton as Agent Connolly, Benedict Cumberbatch as Billy Bulger, and Kevin Bacon, Peter Sarsgaard, Dakota Johnson and Julianne Nicholson in other roles.
While it doesn’t have the overall power of Scorsese’s movies based on true stories like Goodfellas and Casino, it’s a strong, well-told story of good intensions leading to corruption and destruction. I’d planned to see it in the theater last fall but it came and quickly left before I could make it there. It didn’t deserve that fate. The film’s recently come to HBO and it’s definitely worth a viewing.