There was a point in the not-too-distant past where Johnny Depp was one of cinema’s hottest actors. He developed his reputation in a slew of smaller features, before becoming a headlining star with the Pirates of the Caribbean films. In this decade, though, it’s felt like Depp has just taken on roles that would allow him to dress up in weird costumes and talk in unusual accents (see: Dark Shadows, The Lone Ranger, Tusk, Into the Woods, Mortdecai). With the exception of Into the Woods, where his presence was minimal, his work as of late has been dismal, and the box office results for these films have been equally bleak. With his latest film, Black Mass, Depp once again disappears into a character, but is it more of the same?
Thankfully, in spite of some shared vocal and physical transformations (including unnaturally blue eyes), Depp’s turn as James “Whitey” Bulger is his best work in years. It’s surprisingly understated, with Depp’s Bulger demonstrating his power over Boston through a chilling, violent intensity. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the film as a whole, which fails to probe beyond the surface of Bulger or any of the other players in this story.
Black Mass is not a story about Bulger’s rise to power. When the film opens, he’s already a notorious figure in Boston, as the leader of the Winter Hill gang. The film is presented in flashback mode from the perspective of some of Bulger’s associates, namely Kevin Weeks (Jesse Plemons) and Stephen Flemmi (Rory Cochrane), and the story they tell outlines the relationship between Bulger and John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), a guy who grew up with Bulger who used his position at the FBI to create an uneasy alliance between the government and Bulger. Connolly was able to make Bulger an informant for the FBI, and the arrangement originally helped both sides by getting rid of the Mafia. With the Mafia gone, though, Bulger filled the vacuum with the knowledge that the FBI would look the other way. Bulger chose to ignore the FBI’s few requests, though – namely, not killing anyone – and by the time Bulger’s reign of power ended, he was responsible for numerous deaths.
It’s an interesting story, and one that’s true to boot. Unfortunately, director Scott Cooper fails to do much besides tell the story plainly. Bulger is presented as a complicated man who was able of being a loving father and son, while also being a brutal murderer. He goes out of his way to kill those in his organization suspected of being a potential informant, and refuses to acknowledge that he’s doing the exact same thing. The film doesn’t shy away from his brutality. Where the film fails, then, is going deeper into what made Bulger tick. There’s no attempt at an explanation for Bulger’s actions – they just happen.
It doesn’t help that Depp, as good as he is, is surrounded by a questionable cast. Maybe it’s the Bah-ston accent. Two of the most prominent supporting players, Edgerton and Benedict Cumberbatch (as Bulger’s younger brother, Billy) are both working so hard to cover their Australian and English accents, respectively; on paper, they’re solid casting choices, but they can’t seem to overcome the accent issue. A handful of actors do seem to actually fit into the world: Julianne Nicholson as Connolly’s wife, Peter Sarsgaard as a junkie crook, and Corey Stoll as the man who’s finally able to bring Bulger and Connolly’s work to an end. Unfortunately, each of their performances are limited, and in some cases could be completely excised (see: Sienna Miller’s cut role as Bulger’s late-in-life girlfriend).
There’s no question: Depp is great in this role. There are some solid supporting performances, and visually it’s a stunner. That’s not enough, though, to create a worthwhile film. At one point, Ben Affleck and Matt Damon were working on their own Whitey Bulger film. Given Affleck’s directorial work with Boston characters, it’s hard not to imagine that a stronger film could have come out of this story.