How sad is it that one of the main concerns going into Black Mass isn’t about whether the story that will unfold on the screen will be entertaining and worth the price of a ticket but instead it’s whether Johnny Depp’s makeup for this film will overwhelm his performance as it did in just about every movie he’s made over the past decade? Depp went from being considered a brilliant chameleon who loses himself in his characters to an actor who seemed to seek out roles based solely on whether they offered the chance to sport bizarre hair and makeup.
Depp got a pass for his costume, hair, and guyliner in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies because at least the first film of that franchise was highly entertaining due mostly to Depp completely embracing the role of a pirate captain. But somewhere along the way Depp turned into a pale version of his former self on screen. He didn’t phone it in, but he did choose a series of projects that puzzled fans who knew he had so much more in him than The Tourist, Dark Shadows, The Lone Ranger, Tusk, and Mortdecai. And now Depp fans who’ve watched the Black Mass trailers have been concerned this is yet another forgettable ‘Depp in bizarre makeup’ film. Rest assured, that is definitely not true with Black Mass. Black Mass is Depp completely and authentically portraying real South Boston mobster James ‘Whitey’ Bulger and not Depp disguised as a weird, strangely lifeless character as has recently been the case.
Directed by Scott Cooper (Out of the Furnace, Crazy Heart) and based on the book by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill, Black Mass is the latest in a long line of gangster films set in Boston. Depp plays Whitey Bulger, complete with ugly false teeth, a strange-looking nose, and piercing blue contacts. It’s not distracting but instead serves to help Depp disappear into this notoriously ruthless gangster who was well loved by the people of his neighborhood, despite his quickness to anger. Depp’s Bulger is a cold-hearted killer who believed he was above the law, and in fact he had FBI Agent John Connolly (played by Joel Edgerton) looking out for his interests and ensuring he was left alone to run the Boston criminal underground. Surrounded by sycophants and cold-blooded killers, Bulger ruled with an iron fist, seeking vengeance on anyone he thought was working against his interests and often killing his enemies in plain sight of multiple witnesses. He was protected and untouchable, and Black Mass attributes Bulger’s rise to power directly to FBI Agent John Connolly.
Black Mass isn’t the best mob movie nor is it even in the top 10, but it is a solid addition to the lengthy list of Boston mob films. The film’s tone is all over the place and the story is summed up much too quickly, leaving the audience without the satisfaction of learning the truth of Bulger’s capture. If you’ve read anything about the production, you know Sienna Miller was completely cut out of the film. The scenes that were shot focusing on the period leading up to Bulger’s arrest were also left out of Black Mass. Those scenes are missed as the final cut now ends with a third act that feels incomplete and rushed.
Black Mass feels sluggish in places when a sense of urgency and menace is needed to completely capture the mood. There are also a few supporting characters who are so underdeveloped and yet integral to the story that they appear more as caricatures of mobsters rather than fleshed out characters. However, what makes Black Mass so entertaining despite the film’s missteps are the performances of the entire cast. Cooper’s put together an incredible ensemble led by Depp whose return to form has been a long time coming. Welcome back, Mr. Depp, we’ve missed you. Depp’s the biggest star of Black Mass and well deserving of the praise heaped on his performance, but Joel Edgerton delivers an even better performance as the smarmy FBI agent who threw away a career to play a huge role in Bulger’s sleazy world. Edgerton is the standout in this strong ensemble that includes terrific performances from Kevin Bacon, Rory Cochrane, Benedict Cumberbatch (as Whitey’s politician brother), Corey Stoll, and Peter Sarsgaard.
Depp and Edgerton drive Black Mass and in their hands this mob film rises above its rough spots. Their performances are the reason to see Black Mass.
MPAA Rating: R for brutal violence, language throughout, some sexual references and brief drug use
Directed By: Scott Cooper
Running Time: 122 minutes
Release Date: September 18, 2015
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