You’ve never met an actor quite as colourful as Johnny Depp. From alcoholic pirates to demon barbers, the man has thrown himself into pretty much any fancy character you can whip up. Notably his career in recent years hasn’t been as uproarious as his early years – several recent flops like The Lone Ranger, Transcendence, and the horrific Mortdeci, have hampered many people’s image of Depp. Thankfully, Black Mass is a solid platform that he uses to remind us all of why he is so loved – it’s a brooding and sinister return to form.
Depp transforms himself into Whitey Bulger, the infamous Boston based Irish-American gangster who controls the majority of organised crime in South Boston. Benedict Cumberbatch is his brother, Billy Bulger, and head of the Massachusetts Senate. The film begins in 1975, where Bulger is first approached by childhood friend John Connelly (Joel Edgerton), an FBI officer wanting to recruit Bulger as an informant to help bring down a rival gang.
The first half of the film spends most of its time getting us settled into the world Bulger inhabits. We see how respected he is by many, feared by even more, and the relationship with his then wife and young son. This contains a brief but impressive performance from Dakota Johnson, who is seemingly trying to prove to audiences she’s more than just a bland front-runner for boring cinematic erotica.
As we progress, the scenarios become progressively darker and perplexing, and then we start to understand how truly dangerous and menacing Mr. Bulger was. Subjects get tortured, blood gets split, and FBI agents get increasingly frustrated at Connelly’s defence of Bulger as he causes more trouble. The more scenes we have, the more piercing Depp’s blue contact lenses become. This man was seriously dangerous; his world may look respectable from a surface view, but as the film successfully carves deeper about half way through, things get nasty. Naturally, you can’t make a modern gangster film without thinking up comparisons to the classics: The Godfather, Casino, and Goodfellas – and Black Mass owes several debts to all of these. As a film, the path it follows generally doesn’t stray far from a well-trodden path, and if it wasn’t for the calibre of the stars, it wouldn’t be as engaging as it is.
It’s brilliant to see Johnny Depp doing such a serious and intense role. His stream of recent flops emphasise how pantomime his roles have been in the past years, but Bulger is far from pantomime. The heavily trailered scene at a dinner table regarding the family recipe for a steak is a highlight, although it does work best in the concept of the trailer. It’s the sheer power of understatement that makes it a winning performance – it’s not over the top; it’s just cold, menacing, and calculated, with scenes of explosive violence that strike your core. The ending, fully entrenched in the sinister blackness that directory Scott Cooper spends most of the film oiling, is surprisingly haunting.
A cavort of supporting performances cement the solidarity – Joel Edgerton plays off with charisma as an agent who isn’t very sharp but his personality is enough to get him through many years of defending a gangster. Smaller roles from Kevin Bacon, Juno Temple, and Jesse Plemons adhere to the brutality, and are fitting window dressing. Cumberbatch is his usual likable self, and we like him even more in this as he’s trying so hard to keep his Boston accent in check. He’s mostly successful. Mostly.
Many a Depp fan will have been waiting for a return to greatness from the actor, and for all intents and purposes, Black Mass will serve their cravings. Depp soars from the word go, and while the film provides a solid two feet to propel him, it’s only in the final act where it jumps from solid to seductive.