Dance with the devil
An impressive biopic on the unholy alliance between gangster Whitey Bulger and the FBI
Johnny Depp plays the notorious James “Whitey” Bulger and he’s superb, particularly in the moments where Bulger seems to resemble the devil incarnate. But Black Mass, with its big cast and its multifaceted social drama, is no one-man show.
Depp’s character dominates and he performs accordingly, but the film’s multicharacter mixture of crime story and morality play is strongest in its portrayal of John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), an ambitious FBI agent with lifelong ties to south Boston and the Irish neighborhood they both grew up in.
Connolly’s moral wager—that he can be loyal to both the FBI and Whitey—is the centerpiece in the film’s gallery of morally compromised warrior types. Cops and robbers alike charge boldly through their respective confusions of high-minded aspirations and lowlife brutalities. Bold, quick-witted decision-making blends more and more into devastating self-deceptions.
Edgerton’s low-key performance is a necessary part of the characterization. As such, it also serves as a more reflective take on the social, ethnic and moral dynamics that fuel the character extremes of Bulger and Connolly alike, and of many others around them, including even Bulger’s politician brother, William (Benedict Cumberbatch).
Director Scott Cooper gives the whole production a shrewd mixture of action-movie fury and socially minded, 1970s-style crime drama. In scenes of appalling violence, Cooper doesn’t hide the gore from us, but more than once he also makes a point of giving us a close view of a silent witness and/or accomplice struggling to maintain moral and emotional neutrality as the horror unfolds.
The supporting cast is large and impressive: Kevin Bacon, David Harbour, Corey Stoll and Adam Scott as FBI agents; Jesse Plemons, Rory Cochrane, W. Earl Brown, Bill Camp and Peter Sarsgaard as Bulger’s henchmen and associates; Dakota Johnson as Bulger’s common-law wife; Julianne Nicholson as Connolly’s wife; Juno Temple as an ill-fated stepdaughter; Mary Klug as the Bulger brothers’ mother.