If you’re of a certain age, you remember having this kind of epiphany seeing Johnny Depp in the early ’90s, maybe watching Edward Scissorhands, Benny & Joon, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? or Ed Wood, and thinking, “Hey, this guy can act!” Then, when The Pirates of the Caribbean came out, it was “Ha! Ha! He’s doing Keith Richards!” And it worked in a quirky way, enough to make Keith Richards appearance in a later sequel amusing, even as the schtick began to wear a bit thin. Then maybe you saw the “Wonka” movie and it was…”Oh, he’s doing Carol Channing. Huh.”
Then we were in this situation where a guy who had basically made his name in indie films while avoiding the easy bucks as a teen heartthrob seemed to be drifting along for ten years in big budget films of varying levels of mediocrity. And all through it, you still sort of like Depp because he gives less an impression of coasting so much as misfiring. He’s at least trying new things, and seems to be aware of the dangers of becoming a parody of himself.
So, for those who care about such things, Black Mass is a breath of fresh air, not only the strongest entry yet from actor-turned-director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart, Out of the Furnace), but a reminder that Depp really can act. The first thing you may wonder is “Who’s he doing this time?” And the good news is: nobody. You could say his performance is informed by Jack Nicholson, who played a character based on Bulger in Martin Scorsese’s The Departed, but it’s mostly pure Depp playing the sort of complicated guy who killed without compunction but was finally arrested in Santa Monica living with a woman who loved cat calendars. (Not depicted in the film.)
Our story begins in the ’70s, with Whitey is a low-level thug but Southie neighborhood hero, who has a fan in the FBI, John Connolly (Joel Edgerton, Animal Kingdom, and who recently wrote and directed the psychodrama, The Gift). Connolly has this idea that Whitey can bring down the mafia, and all the mafia has to do is look the other way when he’s, you know, extorting, racketeering and murdering. The FBI head (Kevin Bacon, Death Warrant, Friday the 13th) draws a line at the murdering part, though, which is how hapless Brian Halloran (played by Peter Sarsgaard, The Orphan, An Education, Green Lantern, Robot and Frank) gets sucked into the scheme—covering for Bulger when revealing him would mean jeopardizing legitimate arrests.
Well, it all ends in tears, of course, as these lives of crime do. Tears and bullets to the back of the head. And in the end, you’ve learned precisely nothing about anything, except that some men are so close to evil as to make no nevermind, and that all men are ultimately corruptible, except possibly Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays Bulger’s brother, a highly successful politician and university dean, who seems to have kept his nose clean despite considerable pressure to help his brother out.
So, first of all, this is a gangster flick. If you don’t like gangster flicks, you won’t like this: It’s violent, often brutally so; There aren’t a lot of sympathetic characters. There’s no Elliot Ness, for example. The characters themselves are not drawn in sharp detail. Whitey is shown having certain feelings and reactions to events, but you get no explanations or excuses. Same for the FBI agents who supported him (except Halloran whose participation was the result of peer pressure).
On the bright side, this means you get a minimum of BS. The moviemakers aren’t trying to spell things out for you. There’s a lot here you can fill in. For whatever reason, South Boston is a hotbed of white, Irish, funny-talking crime.
On the other hand, it means the movie can’t really reach greatness because there is no character arc, no moment of understanding, no element of human drama that we can all relate to. Like all gangsters, White continued his crime spree until it became impossible for him to do so any more.
Nonetheless, it makes for a good show.
Solid direction. Good performances all around. Not a lot of women but they do what they can with the limited roles: Dakota Johnson (of the Hollywood Griffith/Johnsons, also 50 Shades of whatever, and—perhaps coincidentally—21 Jump Street) plays baby-mama to Bulger’s son, and has a tense moment of domestic strife that might lead to tears, or a bullet to the back of the head; Julianne Nicholson (“Ally McBeal”, “Law and Order: Criminal Intent”) plays the smarter-than-her-husband John Connolly who also has a tense moment of domestic strife that certainly leads to tears but might also lead to a bullet to the back of the head; and Juno Temple (Horns, Killer Joe) who has a tense moment of domestic strife that—well, she probably wishes she got a bullet to the back of the head.
After seeing The Untouchables, The Boy once opined that he liked gangster movies. After The Departed, Goodfellas and the Godfather movies, he modified that to saying he had a theoretical liking of gangster movies. I’m not a fan of gangster movies at all (though I too like The Untouchables). But we both liked this.