By Nick Anstett
Formerly one of the most iconic actors in Hollywood, Johnny Depp has spent most of the last decade in a self-fulfilling cycle of eccentric and over-the-top performances. Whether playing a zany alcoholic pirate or a number of Tim Burton releases, Depp has slowly evolved into a caricature of himself. Even just this year, Depp opened up the year with the critical and commercial flop “Motrdecai.” With the release of “Black Mass,” we finally see him taking on a restrained and nuanced role outside of what has become his typical wheelhouse.
James “Whitey” Bulger (Depp) rules the criminal underworld of South Boston. With his brother, Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch) acting as state senator and a loyal band of criminal underlings, “Whitey” spends his days relatively unchallenged until the Italian mafia begins muscling in on his territory. However, former childhood friend and now FBI detective, John Connolly (Joel Edgarton) offers a potentially revolutionary alliance. “Whitey” will act as an informant for bureau investigations, and in turn, Connolly and his fellow detectives will offer assistance in taking down the mafia and temporarily turn a blind eye to any criminal transgressions. However, as “Whitey’s” erratic and violent behavior refuses to comply with FBI regulations, Connolly finds his loyalty tested.
“Black Mass” might as well act simply as a showcase for Depp’s acting potential. While Depp has shown skill and nuance in past roles, director Scott Cooper’s film represents his most impressive performance in decades. Depp is hardly recognizable. Hidden under impressive make up prosthetics and sporting a realistic South Boston accent, he disappears into the role of “Whitey.” Depp hones “Whitey’s” malice and eccentricities through subtle mannerisms and soft spoken dialogue. He sucks the air out of every room he enters and fills it instead with palpable tension. There’s a human soul to Depp’s “Whitey” that prevents him from feeling unsympathetic or unnaturally malicious while adding to his unpredictability. It allows for a role that hones his natural talent for the bizarre and showmanship and pushes it in a direction that feels unfamiliar, but at the same time utterly suited for his talents. When Depp is on screen, “Black Mass” soars.
It’s unfortunate then that Depp’s performance towers over the rest of the film. While it is to be commended that Cooper and screenwriters Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth elect for a decidedly mellow approach to the violent subject matter, the parts of “Black Mass” that do not include Depp’s character lack tension.
Despite the uncomfortable moral ground that Connolly finds himself in, we never are truly asked to question it throughout. His seduction into the criminal underworld slips by before the audience ever realizes that he is in danger of losing his way. In this manner, scenes that lack Depp’s presence feel almost stagnant and stalling. Much of this is due to the fact that outside of the central relationship of Connolly and “Whitey,” which Edgarton and Depp both structure as the soul of the film, much of “Black Mass” finds itself concerned with abstract concepts of criminal territory and inter-bureau politic but never provides the human hook to ground them.
That being said, “Black Mass” never loses its good graces. Its slower, more subdued style of storytelling allows for moments of character, tension, and humor in a way that a higher octane thriller would not. It sits as a movie that is content with being enjoyably average but at the same time elevated by the sheer power of its leading man.