I find it quite surprising that people can still even remember what Johnny Depp really looks like. The 52-year old actor has spent the last few years lacquered in so much ludicrous makeup and affecting so many physical quirks (not to mention donning crazy headgear, including a dead bird!) that a sighting of the real Johnny Depp has become about as rare as a Johnny Depp movie making it big at the box office. While it’s too early to tell if Black Mass will break the latter losing streak, I can confirm that Depp has once again undergone some severe visual transmogrification to play infamous real-life Bostonian gangster James “Whitey” Bulger. The difference is that this time it works. It works brilliantly.
For those of you not up to date on your FBI’s Most Wanted lists from more than a decade ago, Whitey Bulger was a feared but small-time hoodlum running the Irish-American Winter Hill Gang in South Boston in the 1980’s, who was most famous for also being the older brother of Massachusetts State Senate President Billy Bulger (Benedict Cumberbatch). Whitey would rise to true infamy though after a childhood friend returned to town and offered him a deal that would change their lives and a huge chunk of the US criminal landscape forever.
The friend, John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), had left Boston to become a FBI agent, and now returned to ask his ol’ buddy to become an informant on the local Italian mob who Connolly had been tasked to take down. Bulger would provide intel – secretly, because nobody likes a rat – on his fellow crooks to his “friend”, and in return the FBI looks the other way on his small time dealings. The only thing they ask is that Bulger doesn’t murder anybody – which is actually asking a lot due to the frequency that the volatile gangster terminates anybody who just eyeballs him funny.
But Bulger, ever the snake, plays the FBI and essentially uses them to take out the Mafia i.e. his competition, paving the way for him to ascend to the ranks of criminal mastermind. And without any qualms about killing people despite the FBI’s rules. Connolly, spurred on by both loyalty to his old friend and the flashy new gifts he was suddenly receiving, broke some rules of his own to keep the relationship going as the intel he provided skyrocketed him up the food chain. But along the way their actions left behind a trail of corpses and rotten deals.
And director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart, Out of the Furnace) admittedly tells this decades-spanning true story in a very straightforward manner. It’s all solidly executed, with gritty, textured drama punctuated by moments of extreme, unflinching violence – usually at the hands of a snarling Whitey – but there’s a distinct lack of artistic personality here. For the most part, it’s very much by the usual gangster drama playbook, which is not a bad thing, but there’s just nothing definitive to tell you that this is a Scott Cooper film other than his name in the credits.
Also the screenplay by Jez Butterworth and Mark Mallouk, which is structured around not just Whitey’s ascension but also a handful of his personal tragedies, has a habit of introducing plot points and characters that appear to be major, only for them to get buried and forgotten quicker than Whitey entombs his enemies in the grounds beneath his favourite Boston bridge. Several characters such as Whitey’s wife Lindsey (Dakota Johnson) or his new young muscle Kevin (Jesse Plemmons) go this route, with no real introspection offered to them or how to they impacted Whitey himself. However, even with their limited screen time, they still shine. Everybody does.
This is undoubtedly an actor’s movie, with the huge cast showcasing their thespian chops at every turn; from Peter Sarsgaard’s drugged out crook, to Kevin Bacon’s shouty FBI boss, to Juno Temple’s chipper prostitute, Corey Stoll’s bulldog of an US Attorney and even David Harbour’s FBI agent who unfortunately possesses a secret family recipe for a steak marinade (You’ll see). The entire cast is acting at full throttle here. But ruling over them all with a masterful combined air of omnipotence and horrific instability sits Johnny Depp.
He may be transformed into a creature of deathly pale hair and cold blue eyes the colour of ice water, but he is very much a fiery dynamo as he owns every scene and every situation he finds himself in. And as violently unpredictable and occasionally lecherous as he may be, Whitey is not just a vile monster, as Depp gets given the opportunity to run the full thespian gamut. It’s a performance that is both emotionally explosive in the bigger scenes and eerily chilling in the quieter moments, but is always gripping.
Without this towering performance – unequivocally the best that Depp has delivered in years – would Black Mass still be as engaging as it is? While Depp most certainly helps to plaster over some of the other cracks that are visible in the film’s facade, that’s still hard to say. And luckily I don’t have to as we do in fact get this magnificent turn from an actor that has been awfully hit-and-miss lately, but proves that much like his on-screen counterpart, he still has the ability to rise to the top with a fearsome showing.
Last Updated: October 15, 2015