Bulger biopic is truly grim

There is very little cheer in Beantown in the sordid tale of James “Whitey” Bulger’s criminal exploits as spelled out in gruesome detail in Black Mass. The ruthless felon—who was finally caught, tried, and convicted in 2013—profoundly embarrassed the FBI when it became known that he exploited his confidential informant status to continue, and even accelerate his extensive illegal activities. Black Mass tells the parallel stories of Bulger’s crimes with the internal Bureau obfuscations of his childhood friend from “Southie,” John Connolly.

The well-crafted movie, as directed by Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart), faithfully recreates the seamy underbelly of criminal life in South Boston. But the story is so coldly detached from its own violence and strangely uninterested in its characters’ motivations that one leaves the theater bereft of understanding and in want of a shower.

The amazing albeit testosterone-heavy cast includes Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Jesse Plemons, Benedict Cumberbatch, Kevin Bacon and Julianne Nicholson (with just one gut-wrenching scene). There is no redemption in the narrative, but it can be found perhaps in Depp’s performance as Bulger. Although the viewer gains no insight into Bulger as a person, Depp at long last creates a film character that transcends mere physical transformation to convey palpable menace. Unrecognizable under his make-up but stripped of distracting affectations, Depp reminds us of his once-promising acting prowess.

In the end, Black Mass leaves us to ponder whether being cinematically exposed to two hours of real-world depravity has any real purpose. It certainly isn’t much fun.

Mark Fields
Mark Fields has reviewed films for Out & About since October 2008. In addition, he has written O&A profiles of documentarian Harry Shearer and actress Aubrey Plaza. Mark also has written on the movies for several publications in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and his home state of Indiana, where he also served as on-air movie critic for Indianapolis’s public radio station. Mark has been an adjunct instructor of film history at Rowan University since 1998. A career arts administrator, he is the executive director of Wilmington’s Grand Opera House and now lives on Market Street. Mark spent the fastest 22 minutes of his life as an unsuccessful contestant on Jeopardy…sadly, there were no movie questions.