No one’s ever going to dethrone Al Capone. There will never be a time when he won’t be the king of psychotic gangsters in American movies. But if our new century has proven anything, it’s that Boston’s favorite psychopath, Whitey Bulger, has pushed himself into contention for favorite millennial era mobster.
Wait until you see what Johnny Depp does with him in “Black Mass.”
Think of all those actors before him who loved to sink their teeth into Capone – especially the great method boys like Robert De Niro (in Brian DePalma’s “The Untouchables”) and Rod Steiger (in “Al Capone”), not to mention my favorite, the nonmethod actor Jason Robards in “The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.” It wasn’t because I believed Robards as Capone, mind you, but because he seemed to be having such a splendid, hammy time playing him.
Bulger was the model for the character Jack Nicholson played in Scorsese’s Oscar-winning “The Departed.” Bulger-based characters have shown up all over episodic TV (“Law and Order,” for instance, and “Rizzoli and Isles”). And “60 Minutes” loves Bulger reports. The criminally underrated Showtime series “Brotherhood” was a tremendous TV portrait of Boston’s Bulger brothers.
The newest Bulger movie is the one that’s going to hit the hardest for Depp. He is playing Bulger with blue contact lenses, a receded hairline and the kind of latent psychopathic ferocity that has been a beloved specialty of American movies since James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, Paul Muni and Humphrey Bogart turned, as a critic classically said, the “gangster” into “a tragic hero.” (Let’s never forget Richard Widmark, too, as Tommy Uto, who cackled as he pushed an old lady in a wheelchair down the cellar stairs in “Kiss of Death.”)
By all means, send your congratulations to Depp. If he seems to remind himself that he’s a terrific actor about once a decade, “Black Mass” will probably do it for him for a while.
The Bulger story is irresistible; it was built for the movies. He was a murdering psychopath whose brother Billy was a powerful Boston pol who would later become chancellor of the University of Massachusetts. Cagney and Pat O’Brien would, no doubt, have loved that. Most importantly for “60 Minutes,” the Boston Globe and now Scott Cooper’s movie “Black Mass,” Bulger’s ascendance to the major power position among Boston’s mobsters was crucially aided and abetted by the Boston branch of the FBI that successfully recruited him as an informant because, at the time, it was the Italian mob on the city’s North Side they were after, not Bulger’s Winter Hill Gang in Southie.
On the grounds that “the enemy of his enemy was his friend,” Bulger climbed into bed with his old pal with the feds to feed him pitiably inconsequential “intel” and receive, in return, FBI protection for all manner of crimes, including murder – for which Bulger had a personal penchant. (It’s not that he couldn’t farm the jobs out; he liked to get his hands bloody every once in a while.)
You’re on notice in “Black Mass” that it’s an actor’s movie in its opening seconds. The screen is immediately filled with a close-up of the face of one of Bulger’s mobsters as he informs on his boss. The close-up shows you virtually every pore of the actor’s face.
Cooper’s movie is full of such giant close-ups of actors from beginning to end – especially close-ups of Depp as Bulger, with his blue eyes dancing with incipient sadism, a dead black tooth in front of his mouth and the hairline of an aging fellow happy to leave fancy-shmancy grooming to the younger studs.
Cooper is said to be a good friend of Robert Duvall’s. He directed Jeff Bridges’ terrific showpiece “Crazy Heart.” Clearly, he loves actors. It isn’t just Depp, as Bulger, who scores heavily here, it’s almost the entire cast: Benedict Cumberbatch as Whitey’s brother Bill; Kevin Bacon as an FBI antagonist; Joel Edgerton as Whitey Bulger’s FBI enabler; Dakota Johnson as his common-law wife; Julianne Nicholson as the terrorized FBI wife; Corey Stoll as the fed who can’t be bought off; and, most encouragingly, a wonderful actor named David Harbour you’ve been seeing for years and who does some of his best work here.
So you spend the movie watching Bulger wheedle and threaten and have people killed and kill a couple himself. There are terrific individual scenes – particularly a scene of Depp menacing Nicholson in a way that Widmark would approve.
But for all the fine acting horsepower that went into this thing, there’s clearly much missing. Biggest of all is something touched on briefly. We’re told when Bulger goes out of his way to help an old woman with her groceries that he was popular in “Southie.”
The movie needed more of that to connect Bulger with his part of town’s famous xenophobia. It needed, too, a richer sense of what his own underlings thought of his paranoid murderousness. Baleful stares just aren’t enough.
The movie concentrates so single-mindedly on Bulger’s unbelievable exploitation of the clueless feds that it misses how completely a thug like Bulger can cause corruption that is as pervasive as a weather system.
Part two of Bulger’s story, if it ever comes – evasion and after many years capture – will require a lot more thought than went into this one.