By Burl Burlingame / SPECIAL TO THE STAR-ADVERTISER
Johnny Depp has certainly played a number of odd characters over the year, but this is the first time in memory he’s played a monster. And what a monster. “Black Mass” is the bizarre, perfectly true tale of psychopathic hood “Whitey” Bulger, and Depp has, as usual, zipped the character up over his head and disappeared into it.
There’s just enough of Depp’s wry humanity evident to make Bulger disarmingly — and disturbingly — real. After all, Bulger loved his mother. He loved his son. After both of them died, Bulger loved killing others.
It’s to “Black Mass” credit that the film does not dwell on murder, while at the same time it makes murder both terrifying and banal. There are monsters among us.
These monsters lived in Boston, circa the 1970s. Bulger was a neighborhood tough, and his brother Billy was an up-and-coming politician. Childhood friend John Connolly has gone straight and joined the FBI. Reassigned to Boston to “clean up the gangs,” Connolly has what he thinks is a bright idea. He recruits Bulger as an informant, but Bulger only snitches on the rival gangs.
The Italian gang is taken down. The Irish gang, Bulger’s, thrives. It’s your basic deal made with the devil.
It all goes sour. You knew it would. The amazing thing — and again, this is a true story — is that it went on for nearly two decades.
Depp’s general dark appearance is transformed into a ghostly thug so pale that his friends nicknamed him Whitey. It’s a startling and spooky transformation, revved up by Depp’s quiet, cobra-like malevolence. OK, it’s likely an Oscar nom.
The central character, though, and the dramatic throughput of the story arc, is FBI agent Connolly, played with Boston brio by Aussie actor Joel Edgerton. After all, the last time we saw Edgerton, he was shaved head to toe, playing Ramses in “Exodus,” and here he’s all ’70s trash and flash, complete with a Breck Girl pompadour. His self-delusion and hero-worship of Bulger is nearly as scary as Bulger himself.
The Boston Southie locations seem real and set in the proper time frame. The film is not an action movie, and has long periods of creepy quiet. It might seem long and dull to a generation raised on “Grand Theft Auto,” but it is immersive in a grim world that seems both broad and claustrophobic.
It’s what you might call a character study. In Bulger’s case, it’s a study of a lack of character.
The title comes from the true-crime book by a couple of Boston Globe reporters. I’m sure the title means something in the book, but there’s no context for it here. “Black Mass” just seems like code words thrown together at random. When an associate of Bulger’s is interrogated and asked what his relationship was, he replies, “Strictly criminal.” There, folks, is your movie title.