‘Black Mass’ brings frightening reality to fictional world of ‘The Departed’

‘Black Mass’ brings frightening reality to fictional world of ‘The Departed’

‘Black Mass’

Starring: Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton

Directed by: Scott Cooper

Rated: R


James “Whitey” Bulger spent over a decade on the FBI’s Most Wanted list before finally being captured in Santa Monica in 2012. Even you if you remembered that news headline, the story of how he earned that infamous distinction is more riveting than any fictional tale.

Bulger was a small time Irish mobster working out of Boston’s south side in the ’70s after serving a 10-year stretch in Alcatraz. During that time, John Connolly, also a Southie, was a rising star in the FBI based in the Boston office. The biggest goal at the time for that office was shutting down the Italian mafia headed by the Anguilo family. Connolly seized the opportunity to form an alliance with the buddy he grew up with and made Bulger an informant, which led to one of the biggest and most violent crime sprees the city ever witnessed after Bulger helped the FBI lock up his rivals.

Bulger went unchecked for years with his Winter Hill gang aided and abetted by Connolly and another agent, John Morris (played by David Harbour), who allowed him to peddle drugs, run guns, extort and murder his enemies while protecting him as a valuable asset to the FBI.

It’s an incredible story with a first-rate cast to bring it to life. Director Scott Cooper (“Crazy Heart,” “Out of the Furnace”) employs beautifully executed shots with precision, building tension, and extreme close-ups of his actors are more revealing than actual dialog. His carefully crafted, meticulous scenes were staged in and around Boston using some of the actual sites of Bulger’s crimes.

Johnny Depp plays Bulger to a tee, and that’s according to Bulger’s actual associates who consulted on the film. His balding pate and bad teeth go a long way toward the uncanny physical resemblance, but Depp also captures Bulger’s dead-eyed menace and his random explosive temper; both are frighteningly realistic.

Joel Edgerton takes the role of Connolly and makes him a slickly dressed, whiny opportunist who believed he could talk his way out of the escalating scrutiny from his superiors, but who knew his career and success were about to come crashing down around him as Bulger’s crimes continued to add up.

Other cast standouts are Bulger’s gang with Jesse Plemons (“Breaking Bad”) as Kevin Weeks, Rory Cochrane as Steve Flemmi and W. Earl Brown as John Martorano — all of whom turned state’s witness against Whitey and received controversial reduced sentences for their cooperation.

Pete Sarsgaard and Juno Temple have greatly reduced roles as some of Bulger’s victims, but their scenes are some of the most memorable in the film with Sarsgaard playing a cocaine junkie who rats out Bulger to the FBI and Temple as a prostitute who unfortunately runs afoul of the gangster. Dakota Johnson also appears briefly as Bulger’s first wife, Lindsay, as does Benedict Cumberbatch as Billy Bulger, a successful state senator and former president of University of Massachusetts who looked the other way while his brother turned Boston into his personal criminal fiefdom.

A must-see companion piece to this fictionalized account is Joe Berlinger’s 2014 documentary, “Whitey: USA v. James J. Bulger.” This piece goes into detail about Bulger’s collusion with the FBI, his capture and 2013 trial for a lengthy list of murders, extortion and drug trading. It’s a fascinating account that fills in pieces left out of Cooper’s movie, which at one time ran over three hours and was cut to two in the editing room.

If some of this sounds familiar, it is. Martin Scorcese based “The Departed” (2006) on Bulger, setting it in Boston and casting Jack Nicholson to play a short-tempered, paranoid mob character using Bulger as a reference point. That movie won the Academy Award for Best Picture, and there could be more awards in store with “Black Mass.”