Gangsta life 

Depp's smoldering portrayal ignites Black Mass

I had two concerns going into Black Mass. One, that it would be one of those highly stylized gangster flicks with more amoral gore than heart. Two, that Johnny Depp, who carries as much of himself in his roles as anybody south of Jack Nicholson, wouldn't be able to unhitch that persona long enough to give arguably the most interesting gangster of modern times his due.

I'm happy to report both of those fears unfounded, though with the qualifier that Black Mass has more of an existential core than a beating heart.

James "Whitey" Bulger was a crook from South Boston who spent time in juvenile prison, the Air Force and federal penitentiaries (nine years, including time at both Alcatraz and Leavenworth) before ascending to the head of the infamous Winter Hill Gang in the mid-1970s. His 20-year reign was fueled by racketeering and marked by vicious retribution and preemptive murders both inside and outside his organization (he was, in fact, the inspiration for the Nicholson character in Scorcese's The Departed). He was also an official informant for the FBI, as revealed by the Boston Globe several years after he went on the lam in 1994though Bulger, now 86 years old and serving two life sentences, denies that accusation to this day.

The fact that a subject of such notoriety is still around to weigh in on his own big-screen depiction—Bulger allegedly refused Depp's request to communicate about the role, and his lawyers have already condemned the portrayal as pure fiction—is only part of the reason Black Mass inhabits an unsettling surreality. A combination of winding narrative and Depp's performance complete the film's oddly enduring profile.

Director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart) took a huge gamble when he opted for a narrative structure built around grand jury testimony from Bulger's associates after the Winter Hill Gang crumbled. The film opens with the testimony of Kevin Weeks, Bulger's primary henchman, and then cycles through the words of other Bulger cronies, including hitman Stephen "The Rifleman" Flemmi.

click to enlarge “…and give me the strength for one more Pirates of the Carribean.”
  • “…and give me the strength for one more Pirates of the Carribean.”

The result, as might be expected, is a story line that transitions between multiple perspectives, and thus fails to achieve any sort of momentum or continuity. But rather than torpedo the film, the fractured structure of Black Mass directly contributes to its haunting quality. Events of unthinkable brutality are cast in the same light as those of commendable loyalty, and Cooper steadfastly refuses to allow his film to assign moral judgment to Bulger, as easy as that task would have been (indeed, the grand jury testimony against Bulger is notable for the respect his cronies still clearly held for him, even in the face of his complicity with the FBI).

That moral ambiguity is amplified by Depp's mostly understated performance and by Cooper's handling of the character. The physical transformation of Depp to Bulger is stunning—kudos to the makeup artists—and whatever method they used to change Depp's dark eyes to light blue created a hugely unsettling effect that makes Bulger seem almost unhuman. It pays dividends throughout the film, but nowhere more than in perhaps its most chilling scene: Bulger makes a surprise visit to an associate's wife who had raised his suspicion by faking illness rather than dine with the mobster. It's an immensely disturbing moment, made all the more so by Depp's steady, controlled burn of a performance.

Black Mass has its flaws, most notably its inability to convincingly portray how Bulger's FBI contact manipulates his own office into allowing the gangster's reign of terror. But they are not enough to take the shine off this strangely compelling account of a truly fascinating criminal.

Black Mass continues at the Carmike 12.

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