'Black Mass,' the New Drama About Crime Boss Whitey Bulger, Doesn’t Transcend Its Source Material

If it hadn’t been for Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill, a couple of pesky Boston Globe reporters who exposed the collaboration between the FBI and crime boss Whitey Bulger, it’s not likely the “unholy alliance” between the FBI and the Irish Mob would’ve ever come to light.

The leader of Boston’s Winter Hill Gang, Whitey started to work as an FBI informant in the mid-’70s. He would continue to provide them with tips up until the 1990s. Detailed in a book that Lehr and O’Neill wrote about Whitey and the FBI, the story has built-in drama, something that undoubtedly appealed to Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart, Out of the Furnace), the director of Black Mass, a new film based on the Lehr and O’Neill tome. While the film features some fine acting performances, it’s not as transcendent as something like American Hustle, the 2013 David O. Russell movie about the FBI ABSCAM operation of the ’70s and’ 80s. The film opens today at area theaters.

The movie commences with a confessional from Kevin Weeks (Jesse Plemons), one of Whitey’s (Johnny Depp) thugs. He takes back to the early days when Whitey was a small-time criminal in South Boston. Kevin served as the doorman at the bar where Whitey and his hoodlum pals would hang out. After Whitey strikes a deal with FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), things quickly change, and Whitey becomes a bigger player in the city. Receiving a certain amount of immunity definitely helps as Whitey can rob and steal and cheat without the fear of getting caught. John Connolly’s status changes too, and he gets promoted after Whitey delivers a solid tip about the Boston mafia. All the while, Whitey’s brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch) climbs the political ladder, keeping a certain distance from Whitey to avoid suspicion. 

Whitey becomes so wealthy, he even invests in a jai alai league and starts embezzling the profits. The dirty deal involves the murder of a Tulsa, Oklahoma businessman, something that wigged-out South Boston cocaine dealer Edward Brian Halloran (Peter Sarsgaard) divulges to the FBI with the hopes of entering the Witness Protection Program. Of course, he doesn’t know the FBI and Whitey are in cahoots (and he subsequently pays a price).

Depp is terrific as Whitey, a nasty guy with a soft side (he’s particularly sensitive to the needs of his elderly mother and his young son). And Edgerton shines as the cavalier John Connolly, a guy who’s so caught up in making himself into a star at the bureau that he loses sight of the consequence of his actions. Cumberbatch and Sarsgaard have minor roles, but both turn in fine performances too.

And yet, the story just never becomes something all that riveting. At least one reviewer noted that this would have made for a better HBO miniseries than crime drama. We’d take things one step further and say the source material would be better suited to a documentary film than this middle-of-the-road biopic.