Film Review – Black Mass
Eighteen years ago, Johnny Depp starred in the gangster picture Donnie Brasco (1997). In that film, he played a young up and coming FBI agent who falls deep undercover with the Italian mafia, even coming to identify – to a certain degree – their principles of loyalty. I couldn’t help but think that Brasco shares a kind of spiritual connection with Black Mass (2015). Things have certainly changed for the eccentric actor. The young up and comer has now developed into the aging, hard-edged centerpiece. Watching the two films back to back really shows how an actor changes and molds into a role the older they become.
This is one of the Depp’s very best performances. There is not a hint of the quirkiness or cartoonish exaggeration that has dominated his recent work. He fills James “Whitey” Bulger – South Boston’s most infamous gangster – with a gravitas that simmers off the screen. This is a character we don’t normally see from Depp, one that exudes greed and intimidation. Bulger may seem calm and collected on the outside, even charismatic, but at a moment’s notice he’ll explode with violent rage. He can crush someone’s spirit with the gesture of a hand or change of a glance. At fifty-one, Depp no longer has the boyish good looks that put him on the cover of pop magazines. This is a good thing. The lines on his face add texture to his delivery, and while we’re aware make up and prosthetics helped in making him resemble Bulger, Depp does not use that as a crutch. He is undoubtedly the main attraction, and justifiably so.
It’s a shame the rest of the picture couldn’t keep up with him. Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart, Out of the Furnace) directs a script by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth (based on the book by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill). What we get is a narrative that flounders with no real forward propulsion. The pacing meanders it’s way through events, gradually laying out information without any tension or force. It’s strange, given that the story of Whitey Bulger is an endlessly fascinating one. His brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch) was a politician, moving all the way to become a Senator. His childhood friend John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) went from the same tough Southie streets to a position in the FBI, and was even assigned to take down organized crime in their own neighborhood.
And that’s where things should have got interesting. In an attempt to stop the Italian mafia from slowly creeping into Boston, Connolly struck a behind-closed-doors deal with Bulger to create an alliance. Bulger would act as an informant to Connolly, giving him information about the la cosa nostra, and in return Connolly would mitigate the FBI turning a blind eye to the activities of Bulger’s operations. But when you dance with the devil, things never go according to plan. The lure of fame and success pulled Connolly further away from the justice system and into morally questionable waters. Bulger, as one would expect, took the support of his FBI connection to develop his business and violent tactics exponentially to where he had little regard for anyone. Bulger would kill people in broad daylight, and began to interact with bigger groups such as the IRA.
So why did such a fascinating story like this end up being so lackluster? Cooper directs as though this is a book report. It also doesn’t help that the majority of it is told in flashback. Plot points are given with no straight through line; there is a lack of focus that doesn’t guide us through the course of events. Visually, Cooper (along with director of photography Masanobu Takayanagi) shoots with a good eye. The camera is often very still, with no extra flash or style. This works as a blunt approach with the violence. Gunshots are loud, bloody, and quick. Strangulations are the opposite: extended to uncomfortable levels. But as a whole piece, the story was underwhelming. There was no urge or insistence push to give us this information. Instead of getting the ball rolling, Cooper and his team felt like they were pushing a boulder up hill.
Other than Depp, Joel Edgerton stood out as John Connolly. His loyalty to his neighborhood and his relationship with the Bulger family put him in a predicament that many should’ve saw coming. Edgerton exudes a nervousness that works for the role. Connolly makes the deal with Bulger without thinking it through. He only saw the immediate rewards and not the long-term consequences. As much as the plot dragged, Edgerton’s performance was key in keeping us tuned in, especially as the walls he built started to crumble in the second half. Watch as he starts to trip over his own words and move with jitteriness, it’s marvelous acting.
I wanted to like Black Mass more than I did, but it never lived up to its potential. A fantastic cast goes wasted except for the main players, and the female roles unfortunately fall prey to the usual tropes we see from gangster movies. Julianne Nicholson plays nothing more than an annoying housewife to Joel Edgerton’s character, and Dakota Johnson starts off making us believe she’s a significant factor (as Whitey Bulger’s wife) but than simply disappears after a few minutes onscreen. The main disappointment was seeing talent be dragged down by writing and direction that doesn’t make the most of their skillset.
Maybe that makes Johnny Depp’s performance all the more amazing. He exists in a bubble, unaffected by all the shortcomings happening around him. His work single handedly makes this worth watching. This is a return to form I hope will stay for a long, long time.