A piece of relatively unknown trivia: Johnny Depp has never watched a single movie he’s in. Whether it’s one of more celebrated roles, such as ‘Ed Wood’ and ‘Edward Scissorhands,’ or his recent string of disappointments, ‘The Lone Ranger,’ and ‘Mortdecai,’ the famed character actor has never broken the rule over his 31-year career. That was until ‘Black Mass’. Depp was reportedly on his way out of the theatre when director Scott Cooper suggested he stay. Cooper, a project helm known for his command over a-list stars a la Jeff Bridges in ‘Crazy Heart,’ must have worked his magic on Depp during that Venice première, as Johnny stated ‘Black Mass’ is his favorite movie he’s seen himself in. While that verdict might be a little bias, we can assure you, Mr. Depp, that not too many people will disagree.
The plot of ‘Black Mass’ pivots on the true story of James “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp), the notorious Boston gangster who walked the dangerous line between hardened criminal and FBI informant. Acting as Whitey’s liaison and close childhood friend, John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) forged the uncanny partnership that was intended to be mutually beneficial – Connolly reaps the rewards of the arrests and Whitey gets to improve his turf. Yet, with Jimmy’s already-potent relationship with his Mayor of a brother, Billy Bulger, (Benedict Cumberbatch delivering one of his finest American performances), the more dangerous Whitey becomes the more his loyalty is brought into question.
Seeing any promotional material will make it clear ‘Black Mass’ is an obvious award season bandwagon that, thankfully, boasts substance in its a-list cast. Trumping them all, however, Depp is frighteningly captivating. The actor’s deep, wide eyes compliment the criminal’s more touching moments, such as playing cards with his elderly mother, in addition to several menacing metaphorical speeches that he reminds those around him, including one notably unpredictable scene with Kevin Bacon’s Charles McGuire, about the importance of keeping your mouth shut. Validating these moments, Whitey isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty – strangling enemies with his own bare hands, and even appearing as an exterminator with an assault rifle trying to clean his streets of filthy rats. Depp embodies this newfound R-rated freedom, becoming physically invested in a handful of gruesomely grounded killings, along with a generous supply of f-bombs. This isn’t Captain Jack, folks.
Like his counterpart will likely do for lead actor contention, Edgerton will make a compelling argument for supporting cast discussions come February. Subtlety evolving his posture, stride and mannerisms Edgerton does a magnificent job in adjusting Connolly’s behavior as his fortune grows. Yet, when his character’s confidence is tested, Edgerton shines. In a torrent of noteworthy scenes that catch Connolly conflicted between the morally perplexing obligations of the law or his loyalty to his childhood brother, Edgerton emanates shaky uncertainty by enlisting a stutter that seemingly breeds in authenticity the higher the stakes become. A fantastic third-string cast aids many of these confrontations, illuminated by a fierce Julianne Nicholson adding some welcome femininity to the overbearing testosterone. Jesse Plemons, who I was for some reason convinced was Matt Damon under all that make-up, did a fine job narrating the first act and bringing more depth to his typecast henchman role. And Corey Stoll makes a disappointingly brief appearance as a new FBI head Fred Wyshak, supplying his ‘House of Cards’ brand of leadership – an element that would have livened a climatic confrontation if the narrative continued to follow his pursuit of Bulger and suspicion of Connolly.
This isn’t the only absent oddity from the script, as writers Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth all but neglected the business side of The Winter Hill gang. Admittedly, it’s refreshing to see a contemporary character-driven crime film but providing audiences with some sense of WHY the FBI wants Whitey in the first place (aside from post-partnership murders) is a staple of the genre, even if it’s as simple as a 5-minute voice over. Furthermore, I don’t want to provide a spoiler warning because of it’s shocking insignificance but you’ve been warned, the death of Jimmy’s sickly son is handled with such disregard that it’s merely mentioned off hand during one of Plemons’ narrations. It’s a head-scratcher of a decision seeing how some of Whitey’s most touching and relatable moments were with his son, going as far as flipping a hospital table out of frustration. So seeing his immediate reaction to the death would have provided even more empathy whilst providing Depp with the chance to show us the man behind the slick hair and leather jacket.
Still, ‘Black Mass’ inherits the crime drama and tells a unique tale with familiar elements. I don’t believe the film would have been anywhere as near as memorable without Depp’s electrifying presence and Edgerton to bring up the rear. Several script anomalies prevent ‘Black Mass’ from ranking amongst the best in the genre, but for Johnny’s comeback performance alone, it’s worth the price of admission. Just be sure to see who’s sitting beside you, the star might want a second viewing.
‘Black Mass’ receives a 4.0/5