Not only are my movie reviews returning this weekend, but so, too, is Johnny Depp’s acting career, if Black Mass is any indication.
That’s not to say Depp has been absent from acting for any extended period of time–on the contrary, Depp has been quite prolific within the past decade or so. But take a quick glance at his last few high profile films and you’ll find critical and financial disasters: Mortdecai, Transcendence, The Lone Ranger, and Dark Shadows, among them. That’s not to say that these films’ failures were the fault of Depp, but I’d like to highlight that of those films, only Transcendence‘s reviews did not highlight Depp’s acting for criticism. There were many, including myself, who began to wonder just what had happened to Johnny Depp. When, we collectively wondered, would he return to real acting?
Then the trailer for Black Mass dropped, and hope emerged:
Black Mass succeeds largely based on its performances, and there’s no bigger performance here than Depp’s turn as the infamous Southie kingpin James “Whitey” Bulger. The makeup department for the film deserves a heaping of praise for Depp’s physical transformation, which enormously helps sell him in the role. But Depp’s ownership of the role goes beyond that. He’s mesmerizing, truly. And, might I add, he’s actually scary, too. Depp’s Bulger evokes memories of classic horror monsters. His sneers, his stares, his physical weight… all of it is menacing.
Opposite Depp is Joel Edgerton as John Connolly, the FBI agent who initiates the “alliance” between Bulger’s Winter Hill Gang and the FBI. An argument could be made that Black Mass isn’t Bulger’s film, but Connolly’s: the somewhat tragic fall of a man overcome with ambition, voluntarily blinded to the truth of his childhood friend. As such, Edgerton’s performance is just as important, if not more important, than Depp’s, and I have to say, he nails it. Connolly’s rise and fall could be portrayed in an entirely different light–a more corrupt one, so to speak. But Edgerton plays Connolly as man who believes he’s doing the right thing. He seems himself as the hero, working with his friend Bulger to eliminate the Mafia, whom he views as the real villain on the streets. It’s smarter to play Connolly as this white collar straight man, as almost a pet to Bulger, rather than a partner or equal.
Black Mass has a huge ensemble cast, and it’s easy to lose everyone in the crowd. Bulger’s senator brother, Billy, is played by Benedict Cumberbatch. His scenes with Depp are few and far between, which is a shame. Their few moments together are interesting. I could have used more of them. On the FBI side of things, we’ve got Kevin Bacon, Adam Scott, Corey Stoll, and David Harbour. (Note: Adam Scott’s mustache is outrageous in the best way possible.) The Winter Hill gang is filled out by Jesse Plemons, Roy Cochrane, and W. Earl Brown. Everyone is used effectively.
I’ve gone on at length about the cast first because Black Mass is the kind of movie where the cast will make or break it. We’re looking at a dialogue/exposition heavy movie, with very little action. We spend a lot of time with this large cast, and they’re the reason we get invested at all. I say that because for much of the film’s runtime, not a whole lot happens.
I guess I should clarify about the action. I stand by that thought, but I have to point out: for a movie with so little action, the body count is extremely high. It’s a miracle if ten minutes goes by without someone getting brutally shot in the head or strangled. These murders are displayed without restraint. Some of them are graphic, most are not.
The violence in the movie might be viewed as necessary. I’ll not argue against it. This is a movie about a violent, possibly deranged criminal. Violence is in the cards. Where I find the need to levy some criticism is in how the violence plays out. For about 75% of these murders, the film operates with a will-he-won’t-he mentality. Whenever Bulger is with someone who may have fucked up, we’re left wondering if he’s gonna kill them or not. It’s a good way to build tension and create drama for the first half of the movie. However, by the last hour, audiences should have a grasp on what Whitey Bulger is all about, so the scenes before the murders that are meant to rack up tension instead feel like wasted screentime. The violence should be shocking, but instead becomes a little boring.
Black Mass is compelling, though. Like any gangster movie, the film comes alive in scenes where all the bad guys are together doing nothing but shooting the shit. Dinners, barbeques, etc. The FBI’s role in the movie is probably the most interesting for me. The film hinges on their tenuous alliance with Bulger. There are plenty of moments in the movie that left me in awe, wondering how all of this actually happened, how the FBI let this happen. Black Mass is worth it for the history on display alone.
My score: B+