Review: ‘Black Mass’ is too cold to fully connect

Tom Long
The Detroit News

Efficiently made and extremely well-acted, there is nevertheless a hollowness to “Black Mass,” a lack of emotional connection. There is blood all over the screen, but very little running through this movie’s veins.

Which may simply reflect the icy demeanor of its central character, the notorious Boston gangster James “Whitey” Bulger, played by a near unrecognizable Johnny Depp. It’s Depp’s most adventurous role in years, but it’s also necessarily cold and uninviting for the most part.

Or the emptiness may simply be history speaking; the truth, or even an approximate of the truth, is not necessarily dramatically satisfying. The screenplay by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth, based on a book by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill, follows a presumably accurate, but somewhat predictable rise and fall trajectory, with few twists and turns and little subtlety. Again, there may have been little that was subtle about Bulger, but shadings are needed in a film.

One thing’s for sure: There’s almost no one to like in this macho movie. It’s mostly populated with killers and crooks, crooked cops and bureaucrats. Three women — Dakota Johnson, Julianne Nicholson and Juno Temple — are given scant chance to humanize things, but end up abandoned, threatened or dead. Jesse Plemons offers a bit of spark initially as a spunky thug and Benedict Cumberbatch brings some dignity as Bulger’s younger brother, a state senator, but it’s not enough to encourage entry.

The result is a cold, hard telling of a cold, hard story, which may be what director Scott Cooper (“Crazy Heart”) was going for. He certainly gets fine performances from a large ensemble cast and Depp fully communicates how scary, dangerous and powerful Bulger was.

He didn’t start out powerful. After nine years in prison, Bulger returned to the streets of Boston as a minor crime lord. But then FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), who grew up with Bulger, was assigned to Boston and charged with moving the Mafia out of town. Connolly approached Bulger and proposed an “alliance”: Bulger would become an FBI informant, basically giving him immunity from prosecution, and help drive one mob out of town while his own took over.

Eventually, it worked and Bulger became the crime boss of Boston at the same time he was supposedly working for the FBI (in truth he offered very little information) while Connolly moved up the career ladder. The film follows their mutual success while sprinkling in assorted shootings, stranglings and betrayals to keep things hopping along.

Tellingly, the film’s best scene involves no real violence, just a haunting threat, as Bulger confronts Connolly’s wife (Nicholson), expressing false concern for the illness she’s feigning to get away from his company. As he runs his hand over her brow and down her face, the violence waiting to be unleashed and her fear fill the screen. There’s more tension in the action not taken than in all the film’s many other murders.

Some of the actors being touted on the movie’s poster barely show up in the film. Two who aren’t being touted — Rory Cochrane as Bulger’s right-hand man and W. Earl Brown as his hitman — are major components and do fine, if dirty work.

If nothing else, “Black Mass” at least shows Depp is still capable of surprising. With discolored teeth, thinning hair and dead blue eyes, he’s an appropriately creepy figure. But with all the talent on board here, expectations go beyond creepiness; unfortunately creepiness is about as far as the movie ultimately goes.

‘Black Mass’


Rated R for brutal violence, language throughout, some sexual references and brief drug use

Running time: 122 minutes