The polarizing nature of Johnny Depp may soon be getting a little less so, thanks to his mesmerizing performance in Black Mass, the new film depicting the story of infamous Boston gangster James “Whitey” Bulger. Indeed, the buzz surrounding the movie surrounded talk of a return to form for Depp, whose work for the better part of the past ten years has been scrutinized as indulgent, excessive, overly reliant on costuming, and generally worthy of scorn by many people.
I wouldn’t count myself among the voices who lament Depp’s recent roles (I don’t think his performances have lost anything, but the movies themselves may not be as good as his early work — then again, I found Mortdecai hilarious, so you needn’t listen to anything I say), but as Bulger, he makes it virtually impossible to find much fault in his portrayal of the criminal-turned-FBI informant.
Depp, however, isn’t the only weapon in director Scott Cooper’s arsenal. The filmmaker has demonstrated his remarkable skill with actors in his previous efforts, the award-winning Crazy Heart and the underrated Out of the Furnace; Black Mass brings together a very large, very talented group of performers, making this as much an ensemble piece as can be mustered with a role as magnetic as Depp’s (anytime he’s offscreen, the audience is wondering, where’s Poochie Whitey?). A supporting cast featuring Kevin Bacon, Corey Stoll, Peter Sarsgaard, Julianne Nicholson, Adam Scott, Juno Temple, Jesse Plemons and Dakota Johnson (and one other cast member I’d prefer not to mention here) ensures that nearly every single scene in the film comes through as thoroughly believable in the moment.
Nearly featured as much as Depp is Joel Edgerton as John Connolly, and his work rivals that of Depp in its marvellousness. The film follows Bulger as he navigates a turf war with a rival mafia family, realizing along the way that he can take advantage of making a deal with the FBI: he gives them information about his competition, and they take care of them for him.
At the center of this plot is Edgerton as Connolly, and his portrayal is about as sympathetic as that of a completely corrupt agent could possibly be. Edgerton (with the support of his wife, who is played by the phenomenal Nicholson) maintains a level of ambiguity around Connolly’s morals—at times it seems like he’s a decent person trying to do the right thing and take down a dangerous criminal ring, but what may be coming initially from a good place devolves into either confusion or downright greed (“If that’s not right, I don’t know what is!” he says in reference to enlisting Bulger’s help to take down his rivals, not realizing how much he’s revealing about himself).
The parallels between the two former childhood friends are drawn, but not in a way that’s overt or imposing; still, it’s one of the most interesting features of the movie. For Bulger, there’s an expectation of deviance, especially considering his background of receiving experimental LSD treatments in a previous prison sentence (because what could go wrong with doing that to prisoners!), but Connolly’s actions are almost more reprehensible since he’s in a position of such great power and moral standing. And yet there’s no mistaking that Bulger is the true monster of the story, despite being enabled by an indifferent or complacent FBI, with a few key scenes, executed with acute focus and handling by Cooper, where we see into his sinister eyes and are genuinely frightened, whether he claims to be joking or not. After all, it’s when he’s at his most polite and jovial that an act of extreme violence seems to be right around the corner.
This tactic, violence striking when the victims seem to be made as comfortable and safe as possible, is a bit of a trope in the gangster genre, and the movie doesn’t shy away from its influential forbearers. While not employing a long take to resemble Goodfellas like Legend does, numerous elements, including aspects of Depp’s behaviour, are Henry Hill-esque. His posture, his phrasing and shaping of words, as well as the film’s use of Catholic iconography and dialogical dynamics between the characters may feel as though we’re watching something derivative, but there are enough fresh ideas here to warrant the generic moments. What can you do — it seems like as far back as many filmmakers can remember, they always wanted to make a gangster movie.
In spite of how well it works as a movie overall, Black Mass is likely to be remembered most for Depp’s performance, and if it signals a sort of career resurgence for the actor, that’s not a bad outcome. For those who wanted a toned down and more aggressively masculine role for the actor (those people are wrong about him, but whatever), they’ll get what they were looking for in spades: his voice alone is pure magnificence. His combination of pieces from performances by Ray Liotta and Leonardo DiCaprio, among others I’m sure I didn’t pick out, results in a transformative performance by an individual whose original and unique talent may have simply been hidden from people’s sight for the past decade, under multiple layers of costuming and makeup.
Johnny Depp is transfixing as Whitey Bulger in a film that makes good use of tone and tension to tell its violent story.