Scott Cooper’s previous films have focused on outsiders and loners, often in the midst of the American countryside. With Black Mass, he transplants himself to the gritty metropolis of Boston, home to real-life gangster Jimmy “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp). Bulger went from small-time crook to heading the White Hill Gang in Southie, taking on the Mafia – and winning – while systematically eliminating erstwhile friends and plenty of foes.

Depp is virtually unrecognisable as Bulger: with his slicked back blond hair and dazzling blue eyes (courtesy of hand-painted contact lenses), he is more vampirish than Irish, preternaturally old and stripped completely of Depp’s physical charms. Bulger is fleshed out here as a family man who loves his mother, brother and son, and who in turn is loved and revered by many in his neighbourhood. The problem is that just because Bulger loved his mum doesn’t mean that we can particularly relate to his character or warm to him in any way.


John Connolly, played by Joel Edgerton, is perhaps the more interesting character. He grew up with Bulger and they go way back when. We are told that kids in South Boston played cops and robbers as kids, then went into the same professions as adults. Connolly has gone from street kid to FBI agent to crook. How he deals with this slow and steady transformation from good guy to bad is a more fascinating story.

Blind to this metamorphosis, his wife has to point it out: new suits, a flashy gold watch and manicures are all pointers to the direction John is heading in. Edgerton plays this wonderfully and his self-awareness comes too late to save him. Cooper also deals nicely with the other characters’ stories and their dogged insistence that they are not rats while spilling the beans on Bulger and ex comrades. Rory Cochrane and Jesse Plemons give great performances as the gang members.

Bulger’s story is both fascinating and repellant, as most gangsters’ tales are wont to be, and is perfect fodder for a movie. Cooper doesn’t quite manage to serve us a Michelin-star feast, but manages a decent dish with all the usual ingredients: the bad boy who loves his ma, his upstanding senator brother (Billy, played by Benedict Cumberbatch), a childhood friend who is now in the FBI, bent cops and pussy-footing FBI agents. If this weren’t a true story, Cooper would be accused of cliché. And perhaps that is one of the issues with the film.

It’s a story we’ve seen and read countless times, but Cooper doesn’t add anything new to the genre. Like Spotlight, which screened in Venice yesterday, it’s solid stuff with an excellent cast (although Cumberbatch is underused) but this story is almost mundane in its many acts of brutality and misplaced loyalties.