“One of us had to die. With me, it tends to be the other guy.”
-Frank Costello (The Departed)
Johnny Depp is somewhat of a tragic example of becoming a parody of yourself. I’ll be the first person to admit I jumped off the Depp bandwagon very early. Somewhere between the Pirates of the Caribbean 1 and 2, I couldn’t take his over-acting. Director Scott Cooper is a different case. I love Crazy Heart, and Out of the Furnace is a movie that deserved more credit than it got. My interest peaked when I found out Cooper would be directing a James “Whitey” Bulger biopic. When Depp was cast as Whitey, I was a little suspicious but thought to myself, could Johnny Depp actually pretend to be a real person?
Black Mass is the story of James “Whitey” Bulger’s rise to power in South Boston. Bulger was a notorious gangster who was aided by friends in the FBI to become one of the most powerful criminals in the history of Boston. Johnny Depp’s take on Bulger is honestly unlike anything you have ever seen. It brings out the best and worst aspects of Johnny Depp’s acting. As Bulger, Depp had the opportunity to bring the most villainous man in the history of Boston to life. What he did instead was put on a bunch of make-up and pretend to be an actor. It is a mystery to me how someone clearly as talented as Depp needs to be slathered in prosthetics and make-up to bring a character to life. I think of the greatest actor of our generation, Daniel Day-Lewis. His look in Lincoln was subtle and extremely effective. Watch his performances in Gangs of New York and The Crucible, and tell me that you need all the extra make-up to become someone else. As awkward and off-putting as the make-up is, Depp’s actual performance is surprisingly good. He plays the menacing at a manageable level.
The movie’s real strength is found in its supporting cast. Joel Edgerton is remarkable as the crooked FBI agent John Connolly. Edgerton has more screen time than Depp, and even though there are several different narrators, he is the main audience surrogate. Connolly’s story is arguably more important and more interesting. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Billy Bulger, Whitey’s brother. Cumberbatch does a great job with a nothing character. His character isn’t well developed, but he does a wonderful job of making us feel connected to his role in the family. Kevin Bacon, Jesse Plemons, and Rory Cochrane are also all great in supporting roles. There is, however, a huge hole missing with the women characters. Dakota Johnson and Julianne Nicholson are not given the material to make a lasting impression on the film. This is unfortunate because it would have been nice to see the effects of the crimes on the personal lives of these characters.
Scott Cooper’s direction is fine and at times great. His skill at times seems railroaded by Depp’s performance. It’s as though he is torn by the film he wants to make and the film he is being forced to make. He has some beautiful shots of the city of Boston. Cooper has a deft hand, and even though Black Mass isn’t a spectacular film, it looks like one. The film’s main difficulty doesn’t come from Cooper or his cast. It comes from the script. With four credited screenwriters, there is an uneven tone within the film. A story that is so rich and full of interesting characters should be easy to write. Unfortunately, this script is more concerned with hitting beats than it is with building characters.
Black Mass is a fun film. It has a great cast and a talented director. Scott Cooper made South Boston feel like a real place. I can’t say the same for Johnny Depp’s version of Whitey Bulger. Depp is scary and menacing as Bulger, but the other worldly looking costume feels better suited for another film. I think there is an unsettling trend between Depp and Marlon Brando. Brando became so obsessed later in his career at being out of this world characters that he ruined his career. We know Depp is talented and can pull off a normal role. I just hope that in the future he will rely more on his talent and less on tricks.