As I settled into my seat at a local theater before the start of “Black Mass,” questions ran through my mind.
Will Johnny Depp give a chilling performance as the lead, notorious James “Whitey” Bulger: a psychopathic criminal from Boston’s South End, who had his finger in just about every illegal pie, and wound up collaborating with the FBI to decrease crime (at least that of his rivals), an arrangement that worked nicely for years until it no longer did?
Can both a British and an Australian actor nail that pesky Boston accent?
Since I’ve lived near Boston, will I recognize any of the scenery?
Answers: Yes, more or less, and yes.
The movie begins with various informants being interviewed and then goes into flashbacks, beginning when Johnny has been released from prison (“It’s nice to have you back,” a neighbor says sincerely.) and is ready to get back in the game. We’re soon introduced to his brother, a Senate member, (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his old pal turned FBI agent (Joel Edgerton). We briefly meet Johnny’s mother (who cheats at cards), but there is no sign of a father anywhere. The movie does not really address the natural question, which is how two brothers from the same environment took such divergent paths in life, which perhaps is unanswerable. Instead it focuses more on the complex system of loyalties between Johnny and his allies, something that is eventually threatened when a former Boston FBI agent moves back and cannot be bought or derailed from bringing Johnny to justice.
Throughout “Black Mass,” Johnny wears the same black jacket and the same inscrutable expression for pretty much the whole thing; he stays deadpan (helped by lots of makeup) regardless of whether he’s shooting someone at close range, strangling them or just wheedling out the secret to a friend’s steak sauce. Lots of characters are beaten to a pulp in this movie, and most wind up at the bottom of a river. Benedict and Joel attempt to stay loyal to Johnny, and do a decent job here, but I never got a sense that either was struggling too hard with his conscience over what the right thing to do was (something that would have brought more depth to the movie). There are female characters, too, but they are basically there to nag at the men and fail to grasp the concept of loyalty to one’s brothers and friends. At one point, Joel attempts to explain his wife that Johnny looked out for him when they were growing up. “What did he do – take you trick-or-treating?” she snaps, unimpressed. Women just don’t understand in these kinds of films.
At the end, consequences are finally meted out, and we find out what happened to most of the major characters, although if you’re already familiar with the story, there’s nothing new. Overall, “Black Mass” is an absorbing way to spend two hours, even if the cleverest part of it is the title. My theater was full, and except for a few people, everyone seemed riveted to the screen.