James “Whitey” Bulger was more like a character from a seventeenth-century folktale than a late-twentieth-century criminal, the sort of figure who’d murder innocents on wooded roadways and then, with a shrug, toss their bloody bones to hungry wild dogs. In 1980s and early-’90s Boston, he headed a criminal syndicate known as the Winter Hill Gang, made up of thugs who plied their trade — selling drugs, extorting small local businesses out of millions, bumping off anybody who happened to look at them sideways — on the streets of Southie, using a dive bar called the Triple O’s as HQ. Bulger was as mean as they came, a snickering little rat in a windbreaker and cowboy boots, and even though everybody knew he was up to no good, nothing ever stuck to him. Even the FBI was hoodwinked: He served as an informant, but the information he forked over turned out to be useless. If you were living in his city at the time, whenever his name would pop up in the news, you’d more likely than not feel a shiver of revulsion mingled with a twisted curiosity. Who was this heartless creep, and how could he get away with so much? The fact that he was the brother of straight-arrow Massachusetts Senate president William “Billy” Bulger made him even more fascinating. The two were like street-wise, funhouse-mirror Kennedys, one of whom had made good, the other distorted by pure evil.
Whitey Bulger disappeared in late 1994; he was finally captured in Santa Monica in 2011, and is now serving two consecutive life terms, plus five years, at USP Coleman. But he rides again, on screen at least, in Scott Cooper’s ambitious and engaging Black Mass, where he’s played by Johnny Depp in a fake bald pate so wide and solid you could bounce a basketball off it. The elaborate makeup job is a problem: Depp might have been better off just channeling Whitey from deep within. It’s almost as if the radiation beams he’s trying to send out can’t penetrate all that latex.
Even so, Black Mass is a tightly wound piece of work, and Cooper (Crazy Heart, Out of the Furnace) keeps its many small parts moving with ease. He’s skillful at merging telling, minute details with bigger, looping schemes. We see Whitey sitting down to play cards, circa the mid-’70s, with his senior-citizen mom and working his treacherous wiles on one of his childhood pals, now grown up to be FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton). Connolly thought he could use Bulger to break up a Boston Mafia syndicate, but he ends up stepping all too easily into Bulger’s pit of corruption himself.
Bulger’s is a horrible and brutal story, and Black Mass never shrinks from it. After he puts a bullet in the head of a crony who defies him and later tries to apologize, Bulger and his all-too-loyal henchmen bury the body under a bridge on the Neponset River, as if it were just the sort of thing you’d do on a sunny weekday. Most of the violence occurs off-camera, but you wouldn’t call the film tasteful: The sound of a young prostitute (Juno Temple) gasping for breath as Bulger squeezes the life out of her is almost more harrowing than anything Cooper might have chosen to show. And the filmmaker’s sprawling cast — including Benedict Cumberbatch as the stalwart but unfortunate Billy Bulger, whose political career was destroyed after it was revealed that he’d been in touch with the disappeared Whitey — is almost uniformly terrific. The now-playing-everywhere Dakota Johnson appears in a small role as the mother of Whitey’s young son: There’s a sweet but flinty pensiveness about her, particularly when she lashes out after her sometime partner lectures her about her manner of dealing with a tragedy that has shaken them both.
The only performer I couldn’t wholly buy is Depp. With that prosthetic balding scalp and strange glued-on eyebrows, he looks less like the real Whitey Bulger than like a bulb-headed alien from an old Twilight Zone. I tried hard to look beyond the makeup, but the more I watched the performance, the more mechanical it seemed.
Black Mass will probably be hailed as a comeback, and that’s not a bad thing: It might help boost Depp out of a stagnant period. But it’s still disheartening to see such a marvelous actor running the numbers in his head instead of slipping right into a character’s skin.