Johnny Depp was never really on my radar of great actors until he put on the gold teeth and somewhat affected swagger of Captain Jack Sparrow.
Oh, I had seen him in films like Donnie Brasco and Ed Wood and Edward Scissorhands. However, I never really appreciated him as my kind of actor until he disappeared into the role of Captain Jack. A role that truly made him an icon. Then Depp began to make choices, mostly prompted by his friend and frequent collaborator Tim Burton, that turned his unique ability to disappear into a role a bit of a criticized trope. Odd because the more he did what we kind of wish all of our actors would do, disappear into a role, the more we criticized. Whether that be Dark Shadows, Alice In Wonderland, Mortdecai, The Lone Ranger, or Into The Woods. It has been a somewhat unfair appraisal of Depp because it is obvious in hindsight that those films as a whole are the main problem. The common denominator of those films and criticized Depp performances are also that they are light hearted tales. People who still championed Depp hoped for him to do what he does best in more serious films. The totally unremarkable Transcendence was not light hearted, but the film seemed to neuter every bit of personality or nuance Depp has. Depp’s career seemed to be in critical limbo. Fortunately for Depp, the film Black Mass has come along to not only break him out of that limbo but remind us how talented of an actor Depp is when put in the proper project.
Black Mass is the not-so-thorough true story of Boston gangster James “Whitey” Bulger and how his shady alliance with members of the FBI made him one of the most powerful criminals in the country. If you have seen The Departed before going into this film, you will realize coming out how much director Martin Scorsese and actor Jack Nicholson borrowed from this infamous gangster’s life. Since the backstory of Nicholson’s Frank Costello took kind of a backseat to Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon’s characters, I was delighted to hear that a film about the real Whitey Bulger was coming out and would hopefully fill in all those gaps. Regrettably, As you can tell from the “not-so-thorough” descriptor in my opening sentence, Black Mass does not really flesh out Whitey as much as I or most would like. Black Mass feels more like a collection of scattered moments, very well shot and well performed moments, that serve to drive the point home as to how scummy and terrifying Whitey Bulger was.
What Black Mass lacks in specificity, it makes up for in its performances. Johnny Depp certainly is the standout. A performance that is worth the price of admission and worthy of Oscar consideration. Thankfully, Depp is not alone. Joel Edgerton, who is having a pretty good year with his earlier sleeper hit The Gift, matches Depp’s seductively slimey performance with an entertainingly sad and humanized one of his own. Where Matt Damon’s character Colin Sullivan comes off as more a comically wormy character in The Departed, Edgerton’s version of a corrupt and desperate law enforcement official under Bulger’s thumb comes off as more real and relatable. Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays Whitey’s brother Billy, impressed me since I was a little wary of how he would fit into this film and how well his Boston accent would hold up. Cumberbatch nails every scene he is in, which left me wanting more insight into him, given how compelling a story it is to be the legitimate brother to a illegitimate gangster. But the big names aren’t the only ones who shine. Rory Cochrane, Corey Stoll, Kevin Bacon, Peter Sarsgaard, Juno Temple and even Dakota Johnson are compelling in their limited amount of time in the film.
Whether it be Out Of The Furnace, Crazy Heart, or Black Mass, Scott Cooper seems to be making a career of helming films where the performances are stellar but the films themselves end up being only so-so. It shows that as a director, Cooper knows how to get the best out of his actors, especially Johnny Depp. He just needs a bit more polish and terms of telling a complete story in my opinion. He knows how to create the tense and UNEASY atmosphere Black Mass needs. I just hoped for a more indepth look at the man Depp creepily embodies. Cook up your steaks, don’t give away the family secret, don’t put your wet fingers in the peanuts, don’t tell Whitey Bulger that you’re coming down with something, watch it…then tell me I’m wrong.