Black Mass begins in the uncomfortable intimacy of a confession chair, with the camera fixed upon the freckles and folds of killer Kevin Weeks’s (Jesse Plemons) brutishly boyish face. This is a realistic film, proclaim the skin details, based on the very real life and times of James “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp) and the way he manipulated a hometown friend in the FBI (John Connolly, played by Joel Edgerton) into giving him free reign as South Boston’s crime mastermind.
My main criticism with what is otherwise a very enjoyable, very scary, and very well done crime drama is the elements of realism that are forsaken. Depp’s Bulger, chilling though he is, seems at times supernaturally villainous, like some ageless cosmic vampire flitting from crime to crime with ghostly invulnerability and a ghastly white hue. He is a demon with a soul of ice who seems to singlehandedly bring Boston to its knees.
There may be a lot of truth to that, but the reality of what was an even wider net of corruption — multiple members of the FBI were complicit in allowing Bulger to rise in power — has been narrowed to a character drama about the greedy ambitions and blind loyalty of primarily one agent, Connolly, and Bulger’s masterful manipulations of him. Ignored are the deeper disturbances of how the government, on an institutional as well as personal level, helped to create and sustain a monster in its midst.
But who am I kidding — script complexity has always been Hollywood entertainment’s enemy, so why expect it? Black Mass is a powerhouse of a movie in its entertainment value, acting strengths, and decade detail. And while I don’t know Bulger and can therefore not vouch for its accuracy, Depp’s performance skyrockets his Whitey instantly into the ranks of a Norman Bates or Hannibal Lecter, transcendent in its terror.
Also notable is the supporting cast, with strong performances from many, including Benedict Cumberbatch, Kevin Bacon, and more minorly but no less memorably, Corey Stoll and Peter Sarsgaard. And so while a braver version may have explored institutional evil at greater length, the fascinating Black Mass will still make you cower in its portrayal of individual evil and the coldest reaches of the soul.