A double bill from someplace near Hell, Black Mass and Sicario both feature extreme violence, ethically unmoored lawmen, and abundant father-child trauma. What links these two gangster epics most closely, though, is their doleful music. Neither Tom Holkenborg's strings (Black Mass) nor Johann Johannson's synths (Sicario) ever let viewers forget that they're watching a funereal procession.
Based on the career of South Boston psychopath James Bulger — who apparently didn't like to be called "Whitey" — Black Mass has the advantage of being rooted in real events. It doesn't push its vision of a brutal, amoral universe into the realm of absurdity. Yet director Scott Cooper seldom approaches the brio of his models, Francis Coppola and Martin Scorsese. Emulating Michael Mann and Kathryn Bigelow, Denis Villeneuve brings much more flair to Sicario, but the result is a film whose swagger flirts with slapstick.
Beginning with the testimony of former confederates who in the 1990s turned against the vanished Bulger, Black Mass rewinds to 1975 to introduce the then-small-time crime boss. He's played by Johnny Depp, outfitted with sunglasses, pallor, rotten teeth, and a receding hairline; he resembles a demonic version of the actor's old mentor, Hunter S. Thompson.
The kind of guy who routinely kills underlings who disappoint him, Bulger is nonetheless loyal to his mom and his brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch), who happens to be a state senator. The Irish-American thug also loves the old sod, a devotion he shows by running weapons to the IRA.
Bulger becomes a big man after making an "alliance" with another son of Southie, FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton). Bulger will help the agency apprehend the Italian-American gangsters of the North End, who just happen to be the gangster's competition for running Boston's rackets. It takes Connolly's boss (Kevin Bacon) some 20 years to notice that Bulger's getting a lot more out if the deal than the FBI is.
Depp's performance is intense but mostly one-dimensional, aside from a few Joe-Pesci-like moments in which his violence is ominous rather than explicit. After his young son becomes seriously ill, Bulger turns on the boy's mother (Dakota Johnson); he also menaces Connolly's mob-averse wife (Julianne Nicholson), caressing her throat with a vampiric ardor — a scene heightened by what we've already seen him do to another woman (Juno Temple).
Peter Sarsgaard, as a coked-up gangster Bulger decides is a threat, brings a fidgety verve to every scene he inhabits. Cumberbatch is equally intriguing in the underdeveloped role of the Bulger who's almost left Southie behind. But it's Edgerton who works the broadest emotional territory, as a man whose deceptions wouldn't be possible if he didn't steadily lie to himself.
Where Black Mass' villain suggests a Southie Dracula, Sicario begins with something that could be from a slasher flick. An FBI agent, as straight as Connolly is twisted, leads a raid on an Arizona house that turns out to be stuffed with plastic-bagged corpses. Kate Macy (a steely Emily Blunt) has taken her first step into a labyrinth of horrors. "Sicario" is a Mexican term for hitman, but most of the killing here is not detached and professional.
Impressed by her coolness in the drug-cartel charnel house, an operative who's casual in both dress and manner (James Brolin) invites Kate to join an inter-agency task force. What agencies? Well, that's a secret. So is the exact identity of Alejandro, a cartel expert whose weary yet twinkling delivery could only emanate from the always-entertaining Benicio Del Toro.
Soon, Kate is roaring across the border and shooting her way through a drug-smugglers' tunnel. She learns that she's joined a group that operates outside the law, and eventually is told that Alejandro is on a personal mission that somewhat overlaps the interests of a cynical U.S. government.
Alejandro's story parallels one, shown in occasional inserts, about a Mexican cop and his adoring young son.
The Zero Dark Thirty of drug-war pictures, the torture-justifying Sicario is basically a combat movie, complete with simulated night-vision and heat-sensor footage. Villeneuve, whose first U.S. success was the Lebanon-set Incendies, seems to see the whole world as an internecine civil war. That grim outlook, and Taylor Sheridan's script, propels the movie into unbelievability. After establishing a tone of grisly naturalism, the director indulges a final episode that's less docudrama than James Bond fantasy.
Much of Sicario is devoted to keeping Kate (and the audience) out of the loop, and even the movie's conclusion is equivocal. Black Mass, of course, has a conclusion written by facts, if not much in the way of motivation. It does mention one extenuating circumstance, however, that's also a connection between the two movies: While in federal prison during the 1950s, Bulger volunteered for a study in which he was repeatedly dosed with LSD.