On the surface, Black Mass could crudely be labelled a film that has been catered as a comeback role for Johnny Depp. The actor portrays a true-life figure, Jimmy ‘Whitey’ Bulger, the most infamous criminal in the history of South Boston, (who also happened to be an FBI informant). It is no secret that the actor’s career has been stuck in the slumps for the best part of a decade, with his last Oscar nomination coming in 2008 for Sweeney Todd. Indeed, his last performance of any real note was way back in 2009, as John Dillinger in Michael Mann’s underrated Public Enemies. Since then, his roles have varied, ranging from forgettable Tim Burton collaborations—see Dark Shadows (or rather don’t)—to simply offensive white-washing in the Lone Ranger. That’s without mentioning this year’s highly misjudged Mortdecai. Remember that one? Me neither. If anybody needs a renaissance, it’s Depp.
The bad news is that this may be a performance to savour for the considerable future, because Depp’s upcoming projects don’t inspire much excitement. There’s another Pirates film to endure and a sequel to Alice in Wonderland that nobody asked for. The good news is that Depp, at least in this film, is operating at the highest level. Despite its flaws, Black Mass nevertheless provides a telling reminder of the talents that Depp possesses. Hidden behind the piercing contact lenses and bleached slicked-back hair, which at times can become rather distracting, Depp is unrecognisable. He oozes creepiness and terror to a nauseating extent. Evidently, when Depp is given material that challenges him and when he is not allowed to simply act out eccentricities, he remains an actor who can truly ignite the screen.
The director, Scott Cooper, has yet to find a signature style of his own, and is far too reliant on superior auteurs, whom he mimics. He does, however, have a clear talent for showcasing the darker side of characters. In any scene involving Bulger, Cooper lets the tension ratchet up to white-knuckle level, allowing Depp to leave the audience reeling in anticipation for either a cacophony of violence, or simply a cackling laugh.
As a recount of history and factual events, the film does a fine job, but there is a longing for more in the way of substance. There needs to be a reason to engage in such a despicable character, which begs the question: Are we meant to sympathise with Bulger? The script does its best to try to paint Bulger as a three dimensional person. Alongside his terrible crimes, he is also shown to be a caring father and a loving son. But Bulger’s motives are never truly explored and he unfortunately does not progress enough, coming across as nothing more than a one note maniac. A more fascinating film may have been constructed from following Bulger on the run as a fugitive, and the subsequent hunt for his whereabouts, from the perspective of the team on his tail.
The supporting cast of the film deserve acknowledgment as well. In particular, Joel Edgerton does great work as corrupt FBI agent John Connolly. In fact, his character provides the film with its most compelling arc. He plays Connolly as an almost-dim cop who has a child-like infatuation with Bulger, which allows him to be manipulated with ease. The movie’s greatest pleasures lie in this examination of how the lines between cops and criminals can become so easily blurred. Ultimately, Black Mass is a middling effort that doesn’t really do enough to distinguish itself from the mainstays of the gangster genre.
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