by Hope Madden
Johnny Depp is a remarkable talent whose film choices can be frustrating. Who’s to complain, just because he often buries his unique take on human foibles underneath quirky caricatures in wigs and eyeliner or a handlebar moustache?
I am – but not today. In Scott Cooper’s Black Mass, Depp may undergo a physical transformation, but it’s his skill and authenticity that leave an impression.
In this biopic, Depp plays Southie mob king James “Whitey” Bulger, a “ripened psychopath” who strikes a sweet deal with neighborhood pal turned FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton).
Front to back, Black Mass spills over with reminders of other films – in particular, The Departed and, thanks in part to the outstanding soundtrack, American Hustle. How could it avoid comparisons? How many new ways are there to tell a story about dodgy criminal/FBI alliances or the Irish mob in Boston?
Wisely, Cooper’s focus is on the complex relationship between Bulger and Connolly. Edgerton handles his character arc, from misguided idealist to blindly loyal accomplice, with subtlety, but this is Depp’s movie.
Depp’s nuanced evolution from friendly neighborhood sociopath to cruel monster leaves chills. He can turn on a dime, as he does in the now required Joe Pesci-esque episode. (Just substitute “funny how?” with “family recipe.”) But the more powerful scenes are the ones that sneak up on you – a situation with a colleague’s step daughter, or Bulger’s moments alone with Connolly’s wife.
The balance of the cast manages to keep pace with Depp’s forbidding performance – Rory Cochrane, Corey Stoll, Dakota Johnson, Juno Temple, and Peter Sarsgaard are all particularly impressive in small roles.
For all the truly fine performances, Cooper’s somber effort can’t seem to define itself. There are flashes – frames resembling a cross between a crime scene photo and an old picture postcard; or individual, eerily crafted moments – but the effort on the whole limits itself to by-the-numbers storytelling.
Depp, on the other hand, sporting vampiric blue contacts that emphasize Bulger’s eviscerating contempt and barely restrained violence, excels. Black Mass may not be quite able to separate itself from the pack, but Depp’s performance will leave a mark.