Those that reference a chameleon when describing the many roles of Johnny Depp might be outstepping their bounds just a tad, but there is no question that the actor who played a detective, a wolf, a vampire and an Indian in his last few films doesn’t shy away from showcasing his talents.
For all the make-up that Depp required for various Pirate movies through Alice in Wonderland and Into the Woods, I prefer Depp when he plays things straight. I’ll take a Public Enemies, Donnie Brasco or Finding Neverland any day over a Willie Wonka or singing barber.
Depp is back to the serious stuff in Black Mass where he portrays gangster Whitey Bulger in the true story of the notorious criminal and his relationships in the community and with the FBI that allowed him to continue his reign of terror unobstructed by the justice system.
Depp throws all his chips to the center of the table in his realistic performance. Almost unrecognizable in full make-up as the terrorizing Bulger, Depp embodies and relishes the multi-layers of the fascinating subject.
The film from director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart) adapts the book by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill shows us a Bulger who grew up the outcast of the family. His brother (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) is a senator and his best friend growing up (Joel Edgerton who is having a banner year) has become an FBI agent. Both careers seem to flourish as Bulger finds himself going through the revolving door of the state’s prison system.
Bulger is a bully. A thug who finds work in the drug and extortion business. He is a killer. A ruthless son-of-a-bitch who thought himself a celebrity in the community. His deep blue eyes are hypnotic windows into a soulless pit of violence and anger. And Depp plays him with a gusto that reminds us why we root for the 21 Jump Street star.
Black Mass is told via flashbacks by friends and associates ratting on his dealings with authorities. We learn of Bulger’s deal to be an informant with the FBI through his childhood friend and this ‘deal’ gives him the license and get-out-of-jail-free card to evoke incredible pain and violence upon the city streets to which he ruled.
The script by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth is smart and sharp but sometimes misses the mark in its attempts to humanize the beast that was Bulger. Take for instance the unexpected death of Bulger’s son. Bulger reacts with acts of intense violence but the inner sorrow was never truly felt on screen.
It’s almost hard to believe that Bulger was a criminal in our lifetime. He guns down individuals in broad daylight and has no misgivings about killing males or females – anyone really who got between him and his success as a thug. And a supporting cast that includes Dakota Johnson, Kevin Bacon, Peter Sarsgaard and Corey Stoll try too desperately to keep the story progression interesting while the plot sways in the wind unable to maintain an even level of excellence when Depp is not emoting.
There are a few scenes that will not only stick with me but will be part of any Depp montage of his career going forward. A dinner table conversation and a particular female’s demise (although much is left to the imagination) are two such examples of Depp at his dastardly best.
In all, Black Mass is a much better than average gangster film. Depp is a frontrunner for an Academy Award nomination and his evil gazing and brooding on screen give enough value for the price of admission.