TELLURIDE – For most moviegoers the new drama “Black Mass” will feel inherently familiar, and the reason is obvious.  The story of notorious Boston crime lord Whitey Bulger (Johnny Depp) and the FBI agent who essentially protected him, John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), inspired Martin Scorsese’s 2007 Oscar-winning drama ‘The Departed.”  The difference between the pictures is that “Mass” notably fleshes the story out with distinct historical detail that film lacked.  Yet, with a number of high-profile crime thrillers set in Boston over the past eight years “Mass” has to rely on Johnny Depp’s inspired portrayal of Bulger and a strong ensemble to truly captivate.  There are worse problems to have.

Set mostly in the ‘70s and ‘80s, “Mass” starts off by attempting to frame Bulger’s rise to prominence through the plea bargained testimony of his notorious Irish-American Winter Hill gang, namely Kevin Weeks (Jesse Plemons) who went from bar bouncer to one of Kingpin’s most loyal associates, and Stephen Flemmi (Rory Cochrane), his top hitman.  This device becomes a bit frustrating as the film unspools as it often keeps Bulger’s true voice at a distance.  His underlings do a fine job of revealing how sadistic he was, but don’t expect to hear anything that really explains how he got there.

What is unearthed about Bulger’s early years?  Outside of an extended stint at Alcatraz not much.  “Mass” presents him as a family figure who believed it was important to be kind to old ladies in the old neighborhood, loved his mother enough to always let her win their Gin Rummy games and kept himself out of the affairs of his brother, influential Massachusetts State Senator William “Billy” Bulger (a relatively low-key Benedict Cumberbatch).  This early 1970’s incarnation was the “not that bad” Bulger.  After his mother’s death and the tragic passing of his beloved five-year-old son we’re told Whitey “was never the same.” Bulger’s mean streak became even more sadistic.

Chronicling Bulger’s entire life story could fill a mini-series, but why he ended up a criminal isn’t the only thing the screenplay mistakenly avoids.  Cooper, along with screenwriters Jez Butterworth and Mark Mallouk, never adequately explain how Whitey and Billy could take such dramatically different paths.  Billy is absolutely aware of Whitey’s illegal actions, but it’s never discussed.  It would do wonders for both characters if this aspect of Whitey’s life was fleshed out more.  Instead, the most well drawn character on the page turns out to be Connolly.

The FBI agent’s motivations are clear. Connolly, who looked up to Bulger as a child, sees opportunity in making him an informant.  Bulger prefers to see it as an alliance, but the end goal benefits both.  With Bulger’s assistance, the bureau can take down his biggest rivals; the powerful Italian mafia in Boston’s North End.   

As the years pass, Bulger is credited for giving the FBI tips that allow the agency to circle the Italians.  In reality, Connolly and his partner John Morris (a fine David Harbour) were fudging their sources to protect Bulger.  When bureau chief Charles McGuire (a solid Kevin Bacon) loses his patience over Bulger’s free reign and unchecked criminal activity, Connolly convinces the crime lord to finally gives them a major tip: his competition’s base of operations.  The FBI starts wiretapping, pushes concerns over Bulger to the side once again and Connolly’s promotions continue.

Edgerton, who had a memorable summer as the writer, director and star of “The Gift,” is quite good as the ego-driven FBI agent.  There are a few over-the-top arguments when Connolly needs to dig himself out of one potential hole after another, but in context that’s the character (or how Cooper and Edgerton perceive him).  It’s the moments of desperation before those emotional outbursts that Edgerton plays so well.  Connolly eventually becomes so corrupt he comes across as the real villain of the story.  There is nothing wrong with the filmmakers making “Mass” a two-hander, but issues arise when Bulger’s arc begins to feel secondary to Connolly’s.

Script issues aside, Depp has a number of showcase moments to demonstrate Bulger’s almost bipolar behavior from a beloved member of his community to a psychopath who has no patience for forgiveness. One impressive sequence takes place at Connolly’s home as he tries to entertain Bulger and his associate Steve Flemmi (Rory Cochrane) to extract more information.   Connolly’s wife Marianne (a fantastic Julianne Nicholson) wants no part of Bulger and decides to skip dinner by hiding out in her bedroom.  When Bulger is told Marianne “isn’t feeling well” he insists on going up to check on her.  After answering the door, Marianne is psychologically assaulted by Bulger who is clearly offended by her playing ill in order to avoid socializing with him.  Under the auspices of checking her temperature, he caresses her face with his palm. His hand falls under her chin and it contorts to check if her lymph nodes are swollen.  It’s also the same formation as if he was choking her and he makes sure she understands how close he is to doing so.  This invasion of her personal space is such a violation Marianne can barely keep herself together.  Nicholson is superb here and Depp plays Bulger with such contempt for a minor social offense that you believe he’d absolute kill her at this moment without a hint of remorse.

There are other examples of Bulger’s killer tendencies, but many of those hits tend to feel superfluous as the film goes on.  Despite Depp’s seemingly flawless efforts, less may have been more in conveying just how bloodthirsty Bulger was.

Where “Mass” excels is with a stellar cast whose spot on performances keep your interest as the film moves along.  Juno Temple, Corey Stoll, Adam Scott and the aforementioned Harbour and Bacon all make an impression with very little screen time.  The real standouts, however, are Nicholson, Peter Skarsgard as Winter Hill gang informant Brian Halloran and Dakota Johnson as the mother of Bulger’s son.  Skarsgard finds a way to generate sympathy for a morally corrupt cocaine addict and in one riveting scene Johnson’s performance tells us more about her character than we learn about a number of the other major players over the course of the entire movie.

There’s one last aspect of “Mass,” however, that feels missing.

Chances are, when most people hear the name Whitey Bulger they recall his highly publicized arrest after 12 years on the run.  The nation and the FBI were shocked to find him hiding in almost plain sight in a modest Santa Monica, California apartment.  The film barely touches on this and recreating the arrest for a scene that can’t last more than thirty seconds just comes across as a gigantic tease.  What Bulger was up to, how he got to California or figured out how to lay low in the nation’s second largest metropolitan area is substantially more interesting than chronicling his years as a mostly uncooperative FBI informant.

Perhaps that’s the sequel.

“Black Mass” opens nationwide on Sept. 18.

With over a decade of experience in the movie industry, Ellwood survived working for two major studios and has written for Variety, MSN and the LA Times. A co-founder of HitFix, Ellwood spends his time relaxing hitting 3’s on the basketball court and following his beloved Clippers.