Get Whitey: How Gangster Is Johnny Depp’s Black Mass?

BLACK MASS

Black Mass
Directed by Scott Cooper
Opens September 18

If gangsters are preceded by their reputations, gangster movies are preceded by the reputations of other gangster movies—all the way back to Scarface (it’s in the title). Black Mass shoulders a heavy burden in dramatizing the-man-the-myth of bloodthirsty Boston gangster Whitey Bulger, notorious in his hometown and famous to the outside world for disappearing as a fugitive. Scott Cooper’s star-clotted film—for a story about clandestine criminal activity, it’s jarring to keep noticing people—tracks Johnny Depp’s diminutive Bulger all the way up to his capture.

As in the upcoming Spotlight (on the Boston Globe investigation of rapist priests), Boston serves as cinema’s city-as-a-small-town, where everybody knows your name but won’t turn you in because you’re an institution/practically family. Wearing insta-gaze pale contacts and the sort of up-high hairline usually completed with a potbelly, Depp flattens his usual ambient charm, though that’s not always replaced by much as his Bulger shows a common touch with little old ladies down the block and coldly massacres threats and upstarts. A childhood comrade in the FBI (Joel Edgerton) gives cover to his operations (including a much-smirked-at jai alai racket), but also saps the film of a certain criminal context and related competitive tension.

The most striking aspect of the film might simply be visualizing the family life between Bulger and his brother, Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch), a state senator—if they hadn’t been brothers in real life, you’d call the idea overdone. Cumberbatch’s elegant posture helps underline the way the best of the cast (Edgerton) conveys character bodily more than through the often indifferent scripting, which begins to fumble even a promising sense of class anxiety. Generally, slavishly hitting Scorsesean music cues, Black Mass lacks the title’s implied mystique, the sort that Michael Mann’s forgotten Public Enemies hauntingly captured… with Depp as Dillinger.

In the cold, hard light of day—which Bulger seems to shoot out of his own eyes—it’s a gangster film whose pageantry of intimidation gradually fades in memory, feeling less and less distinct than in the diverting moment.

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