What the hell has Johnny Depp been doing for the last decade? It used to be that every new Depp performance was worth getting excited about, but the last time I can remember being impressed with him was as the notorious reprobate John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester in 2004’s The Libertine. Everything since feels like a formless blur of pirates, Tontos, and CGI chameleons. No matter. Depp has returned to his past life as a solid, exciting actor in another formally middling biopic packed to the gills with great performances, Black Mass. With his receding hairline, hideous teeth, ever-present aviators & pinky rings, and eyes so grey-blue they almost make him look blind, Depp plays the infamous South Boston crimelord Whitey Bulger like a strange cross between Hunter S. Thompson & Nosferatu. It’s a measured, but menacing performance that proves Depp still has it in him to terrify & captivate, completely transforming beyond recognition & losing himself in his best role of the past decade.
The worst accusation that can be thrown at Black Mass is that it’s a little formally & narratively overfamiliar. The film doesn’t bring anything particularly fresh to the 70s-era organized crime drama format, calling to mind works from names like Brian De Palma, William Friedkin, and Martin Scorsese in nearly every scene. In fact, because of the thick Boston accents inherent to Whitey Bulger & The Winter Hill Gang it’s easy to pinpoint a specific point of reference in Scorsese’s oeuvre that Black Mass can be accused of being a little too reminiscent of: The Departed. Just know that if you’re looking forward to this film as a fan of that genre there’s not going to be long stretches of brutal violence & gunfire that usually accompany organized crime films. Black Mass has its moments of brutality, sure, limited mostly to bursts of fist to face sadism & quick bursts of assassination, but for the most part it’s a calm story of political intrigue. The movie is almost entirely focused on the real-life Bulger’s secretive “alliance” with the FBI that allowed the two agencies to work together to eradicate the Italian mafia from Boston, making room for Bulger to bloom from a small time crime boss into an all-powerful kingpin. Black Mass is concerned with the audio surveillance tapes, buried/forged paperwork, and back alley dealings with the federal government that allowed for Bulger’s rise to power much more than it is with his murderous deeds, which amount to exactly one onscreen shooting & two strangling on Depp’s bloody hands. Bulger is terrifying, but the threat he poses is more systemic than it is physical, making for a film that may have defied the more bloodthirsty expectations of its audience. I noticed quite a few viewers at our screening checking their cellphones in the second & third acts . . .
Any muted expectations I had for Black Mass based on its 70s-era crime drama familiarity (an aesthetic that somehow hilariously continues well into the 90s in the film’s timeline) were surpassed merely on the merit of its performances. Besides Depp’s horrifying, career-revitalizing turn as Whitey Bulger, there’s also great, unexpected screen presence from Kevin Bacon, Adam Scott, Dakota Johnson, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Peter Sarsgaard, and, my personal favorite, Julianne Nichlson (who was fantastic in both Boardwalk Empire & Masters of Sex and whom I only want the best things for). This is an actor’s movie. The 70s crime pastiche is merely a backdrop for the absurdly talented cast’s parade of heavy Boston accents & emotional turmoil. The screenplay offers very little in terms of surprise. Of course Bulger is the kind of gangster that is gentle & neighborly with old ladies, but will have a man killed for threatening to punch him in a bar. Of course, despite his official status as a “top echelon informant”, he’s prone to saying things like, “I don’t consider this ratting or informing. This is business.” Of course, because this is a gangster movie, the script is a long procession of a million “fuck”s, one with just a few homophobic & anti-Italian slurs thrown in there for good measure. I consistently got the feeling that we’ve all seen this play out countless times before, but I still enjoyed it a great deal. Just as a particularly corrupt FBI agent justifies his involvement with Bulger as “a little white lie to protect the bigger truth”, Black Mass is a little, unassuming movie worthwhile for how it supports such a massive list of excellent performances, Depp’s return to form, believe it or not, being just one drop in the bucket.
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