Badfellas in crime-ridden Boston in the seventies

Black Mass (15A)

Dead eyes. Receding hairline. Lazy Jack Nicholson voice. Face as waxen as those ghostly characters he more usually essays in Tim Burton movies… Yes, it’s Johnny Depp, playing the ruthless Irish-American gangster from 1970s Boston, Jimmy “Whitey” Bulger.

The film is gruesome in its violence, owing a lot to Goodfellas (if not The Godfather) in its style and tone. There’s a kind of fascination even in its venality. Depp is probably looking at an Oscar nod for his ‘pocket battleship’ hood but for me he came up a tad short in the empathy stakes. 

Shakespeare once said that pity and terror were the two essential prerequisites of tragedy. Depp has the terror all right but for pity we needed a few more redeeming features from the baby-faced killer. Neither his devotion to his mother nor to his – tragic – son worked well enough for me. They seemed fabricated, tagged on to a character they didn’t seem right for. 

I was more impressed by him kicking a chair in a hospital than splattering an enemy full of bullets. It’s all about detail – like Don Corleone famously stroking that cat in The Godfather.  

John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) is his childhood buddy. Now an FBI agent, he helps Whitey evade arrest by soliciting him to furnish information to him about the Mafia invading Whitey’s ‘turf’.  One hand washes the other and a mutually beneficial relationship is born. Connolly’s career advances in leaps and bounds and Whitey becomes a protected species, one evil regime flourishing at the expense of another. 

We wait two hours for the cosy relationship to come unstuck. In the interim, Depp dispatches anyone who looks sideways at him to their happy hunting grounds. This becomes somewhat monotonous after the first few ‘executions’.

Black Mass has been hailed as a masterpiece by some critics. It’s too derivative for that appellation. We’ve been here many times before, walking these mean streets where women are like fifth wheels and everyone seems to have a ‘racket’. But when it’s good it’s very good. It stumps up well as a catalogue of a corrupt time when a morally ambiguous federal agent put friendship before integrity, playing both sides against the middle until it all went wrong in the eighties, mainly due to the discovery that most of Whitey’s ‘revelations’ were second-hand, making them virtually worthless. Connolly was being played for a sucker by his old ally and now both of them were for the high jump, at least if Whitey could be found.   

Subsidiary roles are filled by (inevitably?) Kevin Bacon, Peter Sarsgaard (the new John Malkovich?) and the currently ‘hot’ Benedict Cumberbatch. 

He plays Whitey’s senator brother – another protected species.  ‘A bird’s eye view’ voiceover-cum-flashback type of direction from Scott Cooper distances one from the action – not a good idea. And the ending is somewhat flat. We needed to care more about Whitey’s fate. We needed to like him more. In fact nobody in the film is really likeable.

Edgerton acts as its fulcrum. He’s a good actor, despite an off-putting tendency to speak as if his mouth is full of marbles.


Very good ****