When Johnny Depp first appears as infamous Boston mobster James “Whitey” Bulger in director Scott Cooper’s “Black Mass,” the actor seems like a special effect. Buried under tons of makeup, a very convincing bald wig, and countless prosthetics, Depp looks eager for a comeback role after several years of lackluster projects.
Such extreme attempts at physical transformation by famous faces often lead to misguided vanity projects. Fortunately, just when Depp seems like he could be set up for failure, Bulger’s sharp blue eyes peer out from a menacing scowl, and an iconic monster comes to life.
As a movie, “Black Mass” often drowns its dramatic potential in a dreary atmosphere and grisly violence used to dubious effect. Depp, however, operates on another level. While his Boston accent takes some time to convince, the actor turns Bulger into a demonic presence whose ruthless antics are made all the more unsettling by his ability to get away with them.
An opening segment establishes the decision by former Bulger henchman Kevin Weeks (Jesse Plemons, best known as Todd on “Breaking Bad”) to share intel with the FBI about Bulger during the 12 years that he was on the lam before his 2011 incarceration. From there, the movie unfolds as a series of flashbacks by way of testimony from Weeks and other former Bulger allies.
They’re looking for lenient sentences, but nothing they do can match the absurd amount of freedom Bulger enjoyed for over a decade. Starting in the mid-seventies, when the FBI loosely regarded him as an informant and allowed him to get away with a laundry list of illegal activities, “Black Mass” portrays the horrific outcome. Depp is the story’s psychotic engine throughout.
Bulger’s unique arrangement with the law comes together thanks to an ethically questionable proposal by misguided FBI agent John Connolly (a stern Joel Edgerton). Connolly, a thinly developed amalgam of conflicting motives, suggests that Bulger become an informant in exchange for FBI protection. He also proposes a daring alliance for the criminal and the law to join forces and take down the mafia.
While Connolly sees the gamble as an ambitious attempt to face down a target much larger than one man, for Bulger, it’s an excuse to go about his maniacal routine. “They fight our battle,” he tells a colleague. From there, “Black Mass” takes a page from the Martin Scorsese playbook of criminal odysseys, portraying the rush of excitement clouding its subject’s mind with a series of stylized elements. Chief among them, Cooper offers up plenty of snazzy pop songs set to montages of Bulger’s Massachusetts terrible reign.
As he kills and bribes his way through a series of shady dealings, Bulger comes across more like an unstoppable terminator than a full-fledged character, though screenwriters Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth (adapting the book by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill) make some effective attempts to deepen the character’s struggles: As he copes with the unexpected death of his young son, Bulger funnels his grief into more acts of depravity.
Mostly, though, “Black Mass” obsesses over that depravity. More than once, the movie finds Bulger slowly killing locals who either betrayed him or threatened his empire. In one memorable scene, he guns down a key character in broad daylight, casually striding past horrified onlookers who can’t do a thing about it. Elsewhere, he chokes a harmless woman to death with his bare hands, while Cooper’s camera drifts to Bulger’s mortified underlying nearby. Cooper’s framing of these killings, like the ear splicing sequence in “Reservoir Dogs,” leaves much to the imagination even as it creates a heightened sense of dread.
In addition to probing Bulger’s psyche, “Black Mass” also explores the institutional failure that let him run loose. While the 2014 documentary “Whitey: The United States of America v. James Bulger” explores the way the FBI essentially turned its back on Bulger’s crimes, no former agent agreed to be interviewed. But Cooper’s movie provides more insight into the frantic arguments between Connolly and his uncertain colleagues (includes a furious special agent played by Kevin Bacon) that Connolly regularly pushed aside, essentially orchestrating his own downfall in addition to Bulger’s.
With its grave fixation on the impact of Bulger’s lunacy, from his casual approach to murder to the eerie, snakelike grin that accompanies his threats, “Black Mass” at times feels exceedingly one-note, smothering Depp’s formidable turn in a thick grim aura. Bulger’s tale has so many moving parts that some ingredients — such as his relationship to his politician brother Bill (Benedict Cumberbatch) — suffer from a tacked-on quality.
Yet Depp remains a frightening presence throughout, with each scene carrying the suspenseful possibility that he might lash out. While “Black Mass” aims to examine the impact of corruption across many decades, Depp acts as though he’s at the center of a horror movie. In a few occasions, he wins out. One unnerving sequence finds his FBI contact inviting the killer over for dinner, where he conveys a series of increasingly less veiled threats. Constantly threatening to veer into parody, the scene builds an unnerving tension.
Depp’s performance is bolstered by a boogeyman quality because we never really see him receive his comeuppance: Whereas the Bulger documentary chronicled his recent trial, which resulted in a life sentence, “Black Mass” barely touches on that fate. Instead, Cooper conveys the haunting legacy of Bulger’s criminal deeds, and the lingering sense that no justice can erase their impact.
“Black Mass” opens nationwide September 18.