The icy blue eyes of notorious Boston crime boss James “Whitey” Bulger stare out from the screen in Scott Cooper’s “Black Mass” like the gaze of some confident jungle predator calmly lying in wait, holding his ground until the moment he moves in for the kill. And that same coolly calculated composure extends to every aspect of how the actor playing Bulger embodies the role, or rather disappears into it. But if Johnny Depp’s mesmerizing performance — a bracing return to form for the star after a series of critical and commercial misfires — is the chief selling point of “Black Mass,” there is much else to recommend this sober, sprawling, deeply engrossing evocation of Bulger’s South Boston fiefdom and his complex relationship with the FBI agent John Connolly, played with equally impressive skill by Joel Edgerton. Something of an anti-“The Departed” (which was partly inspired by the Bulger case), the movie has an intentionally muted, ’70s-style look and feel that may limit its appeal to the date-night multiplex crowd, but quality-starved adult moviegoers should flock to one of the fall’s first serious, awards-caliber attractions.
Based on the exhaustively researched book of the same name by Boston Globe reporters Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill (who make cameo appearances in the film), “Black Mass” passed through the hands of several directors (including Jim Sheridan and Barry Levinson) on its way to the screen, and nearly fell apart entirely in 2013 when Depp briefly quit the picture over a reported salary dispute. But the project found the right steward in Cooper, who showed a sure hand with actors on his prior “Crazy Heart” and “Out of the Furnace,” and who here challenges Depp to give the kind of less-is-more performance the actor has scarcely been asked to deliver in the post-“Pirates of the Caribbean” era. And Depp more than rises to the occasion, doing career-best work as a man who might easily have been played for ghoulish caricature (a la Jack Nicholson in “The Departed”), but instead emerges as a complex, undeniably charismatic figure who draws other criminals and lawmen alike into his cult of sociopathic personality.
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Indeed, it takes a few moments to fully recognize Depp — transformed by latex, contacts and dramatically receding whitish-blond hair — in the film’s opening scenes, set in 1975, just as Bulger was beginning his ascent as the leader of the Winter Hill Gang, a loose confederacy of Irish- and Italian-American hoods vying for control of the South Boston streets against the mob-connected Angiulo brothers. Bulger’s turf war coincides with the homecoming of Connolly, who has established himself as a rising Bureau star on assignment in San Francisco and New York, and who has returned to Boston with the explicit task of taking down the Angiulos and their associates. To do this, he conceives of the plan that will ultimately lead to his undoing: recruiting his childhood friend, Bulger, to supply the Bureau with intel about his rivals in exchange for de facto immunity for his own dirty dealings. In Connolly’s logic, Bulger won’t be a “rat” per se, but rather will enter into an “alliance,” a quid pro quo of sorts that will also help him to rid himself of the competition. (Bulger, for his part, would later deny ever having served as an informant, claiming he paid the FBI for information and not the other way around.)
“Black Mass” hinges on this increasingly compromising pas de deux, and Edgerton (sporting a flawless Boston accent) is superb at showing how the ambitious but straight-laced Connolly is ever more seduced by the decadent gangster lifestyle, his professional ethics muddied by the clan loyalty and street justice that, in some corners of Boston, are more sacred than the Constitution. But working from a script credited to Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth (other hands are also said to have been involved), Cooper enlarges the frame to give us a full-bodied portrait of both men’s worlds — in some ways diametrically opposed, in others oddly similar. Each has his own crew — the fellow thugs Bulger keeps close, and sometimes turns against in hair-trigger fashion (including the very good Jesse Plemons and Rory Cochrane as right-hand men Kevin Weeks and Steve Flemmi); the fellow agents (played by the likes of Kevin Bacon and Adam Scott) whom Connolly manipulates in an elaborate shell game designed to deflect attention from Bulger and himself. And though Connolly is the ostensible family man, with a concerned wife (Julianne Nicholson) who sees him changing in ways he doesn’t realize, we also experience an oddly tender side of Bulger himself — a devoted son to his elderly mother, loving sibling to his state-senator brother, Billy (an excellent Benedict Cumberbatch), and a protective father who indoctrinates his young son in the ways of the streets (“If nobody sees it, it didn’t happen”).
The script compresses the potentially unwieldy narrative into three major acts, the second set in 1981 (when Bulger makes an ultimately ill-fated play to corner the Jai Alai gambling market in Florida), and the third in 1985, when the Bulger-Connolly alliance has so successfully eliminated Whitey’s competitors that the agent can no longer shield the Winter Hill Gang from the wrath of a dogged federal prosecutor (Corey Stoll). And at each step, Cooper stages taut, riveting setpieces that feel destined for the genre canon, including an unforgettable dinner scene (already revealed at some length in the film’s first trailer) in which Bulger turns a seemingly innocuous discussion of a “secret” family recipe into a blistering attack on the loyalty of Connolly’s supervisor, John Morris (David Harbour). The insidious cackle Bulger unleashes at the end of that rant is about the closest “Black Mass” ever comes to the grisly gallows humor that has become the lingua franca of the gangster movie in the post-“GoodFellas” era, but mostly Depp and Cooper play things in a more understated key.
Depp hasn’t been this tamped down in a movie since he played second fiddle to Al Pacino in “Donnie Brasco”; even his Oscar-nominated J.M. Barrie in “Finding Neverland” seems a whirl of outsized tics and mannerisms by comparison. Even great actors (Nicholson and Pacino being among the perfect test cases) can fall back on indulgences and bad habits when they feel they’re giving the audience what it wants to see. But Depp is fully restored here to the daring, inspired performer of his early Tim Burton collaborations and “Dead Man,” knowing he is so deep inside the role that, whatever he does, we will come to him. The violence in “Black Mass,” when it comes, is swift and brutal, but nothing here is more startling than a single, sudden dart of Bulger’s eyes across a room.
Working with a top-flight craft team that includes production designer Stefania Cella (“The Great Beauty”) and costume designer Kasia Walicka Maimone (“Foxcatcher”), Cooper bathes the film in a look that feels unfailingly true to the period without ever verging on kitsch; it’s a movie that isn’t just taking place in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, but seems to have been made then. That feeling is further enhanced by the hard-edged elegance of cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi’s 35mm widescreen lensing (which strongly recalls Gordon Willis’ work on “Klute” and the “Godfather” movies). In a complete about-face from his adrenaline-pumping “Mad Max: Fury Road” soundtrack, Dutch composer/producer Tom Holkenborg (aka Junkie XL) supplies an elegiac orchestral score that perfectly complements the film’s desperate, wintry mood.