Shakespeare had his tortured Hamlet, his ambitious Macbeth, his malevolent Iago, his warring Montagues and Capulets.
But what would the Bard have done with the tale of James “Whitey” Bulger, and all the supporting players around him? There was Whitey himself, at first a minor criminal who became one of the most feared crime bosses in history, ruling his turf for two decades and evading capture for nearly two more. There was his brother, Billy, who grew up in the same home in the “Southie” section of Boston but became one of the state’s most powerful politicians. There were the feuding Boston mob and Bulger’s Winter Hill gang. Then the FBI agent whose efforts to gain Bulger’s cooperation led to his own undoing.
And the FBI itself, which ended up protecting Bulger for years and facilitating his murderous rise.
Yes, Shakespeare would have had a field day. And so does Hollywood, namely director Scott Cooper and a top-flight ensemble led by Johnny Depp in a performance that reminds us, after a string of uninspiring movies, why he’s one of our most compelling actors. Yes, Depp is excellent. But the star attraction here? That’s the stunning story itself.
“Black Mass,” with a taut and effective screenplay by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth, is based on the book by Boston Globe reporters Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neil (they make a brief appearance here). It begins with police interviews of Bulger’s aging henchmen, then quickly flashes back to 1975. We meet Bulger as he’s asserting control of the Winter Hill gang, which is engaged in a bitter turf war with the Angiulo family.
Luckily for Bulger, a childhood friend has arrived back in town — John Connolly, an ambitious FBI agent. Connolly (a terrific Joel Edgerton — and this Aussie nails the Boston accent, too) figures the way to make headway quickly is to bring his old pal into the fold as an informant. He first goes to Billy, a state senator (a fine Benedict Cumberbatch), who coldly rebuffs him. Then he goes directly to Jimmy. “You know what I do to rats, John?” Bulger says at first. Connolly replies: “It ain’t rattin,’ Jimmy. It’s an alliance.” When Jimmy agrees, he rationalizes it thusly: “They protect us, and we do whatever the (expletive) we want.”
Which is, basically, what happens, as Connolly’s plan spirals into a catastrophe for the FBI. Jimmy provides marginal information at best; meanwhile, he wreaks havoc with impunity. Here’s where it’s absolutely chilling to watch Depp. With bad teeth and a head of dramatically receding hair, the actor somewhat resembles Jack Nicholson in “The Departed” but deftly avoids caricature as he grows more sinister with every murder.
These include putting a bullet into the head of an associate who addresses him inappropriately; strangling a disloyal henchman with chains, and choking to death the young stepdaughter (Juno Temple) of a colleague (her last gasps are a sound you won’t soon forget.) He becomes so menacing, you truly fear for the one person seemingly unafraid to talk back to him: the mother of his young child (an affecting, but underused Dakota Johnson).
Then there’s a frightening dinner table scene where Bulger asks for a recipe. Without revealing too much, let’s just say that his sinister, is-he-kidding-or-isn’t-he demeanor immediately recalls Joe Pesci in “Goodfellas” in that “I’m funny, how?” scene. Depp’s Jimmy isn’t manic like Pesci’s Tommy, but he’s mercurial, and he’s scary.
The supporting cast also includes Kevin Bacon as a skeptical FBI boss, Peter Sarsgaard as a jittery gang associate, and an excellent Julianne Nicholson as Connolly’s wife.
If you haven’t read the detailed news accounts of Bulger’s years on the run and eventual capture, now’s not the time — in other words, see the movie first. And marvel again at how real life really does provide the best material.