People seem to forget what Johnny Depp’s biggest strengths are. It’s understandable – for the last decade, Depp has slowly descended into the same self parody that his former mentor Marlon Brando became at the end of his legendary career.
Throughout the 90s, Depp was the best character actor in the world. He worked not just with Tim Burton but other oddball directors like Terry Gilliam, Jim Jarmusch, John Waters, and Roman Polanski to disappear into strange characters. They were all different odd balls trying to make some sense about a worlds where everyone is in deep denial about how broken and pathetic reality is. But by the time The Lone Ranger came out, Depp was uninterested in exploring the characters he was playing. Putting on weird makeup and talking in a funny accent seemed to be enough for him – he was getting huge paychecks out of the deal. But those who remembered his glory days couldn’t help but feel sadness during that stupid “futterwacken dance” in Alice in Wonderland.
It’s why Black Mass is refreshing; Depp finally seems to care again. Now, this film is completely Depp’s show. There are flaws with the story’s structure and in a lot of the other performances. Plus, the film is thematically confused at times, particularly in the first two acts. But Depp’s performance makes Black Mass worthwhile and the third act is so well done that it’s going to entertain a lot of people.
Most have heard that Mass stars Depp as the notorious mob kingpin Whitey Bulger, a man who terrorized South Boston and got away with it because of his status as an FBI informant. Bulger has already been referenced in films before – Jack Nicholson played a version of him in The Departed. But Depp doesn’t treat Bulger as an object of fun but one of fear. He’s a man trying to be a chameleon, able to joke about his mother beating him at cards but then shooting a friend in the back after promising they still had a good relationship.
Depp’s Bulger is not a charismatic Don Corleone. There’s never a deep introspection into why he does what he does. Even when he agrees to rat for the FBI, he’s using the flimsiest of excuses. There’s no doubt that he’s a man capable of extreme violence who hates putting on a costume to pretend like he has to justify himself to his gang. But even in the few moments where humanity does threaten to seize him, Depp never waivers from the monster. I do believe it’s a performance that deserves comparison to Anthony Hopkins’ in Silence of the Lambs. Like Lector, Depp is a classic monster who reflects humanity’s darkest points. The fact that Bulger was a real man who was given a virtual blank check by the U.S. government to terrorize Boston makes it even worse.
But one performance should not carry a film, so I can’t ignore the problems Black Mass has. The film is not really an examination of Bulger’s crimes but about Bulger slowly turning FBI Agent Connolly into a villain. Connolly’s story is the traditional gangster story of the man who sells his soul by convincing Bulger to rat out rival gangs for an easy short-term gain via promotion and recognition in the FBI. Mass did have a good twist of making Connolly the cop and thus making his defense of Bulger far more devastating to his career and his life. But I never found Connolly to be an engaging character by himself, mostly because I never believed that Connolly would get away with covering up Bulger’s crimes for so long. And I couldn’t believe that Connolly was in such deep denial about what he was doing. Did he ever stop to justify the bodies turning up in the marsh? Or about how Bulger was destroying the Boston neighborhood Connolly grew up in? And what about Bulger’s brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch – yes, really)? What did HE think about his brother’s crimes and how it could impact his political career? The film wasn’t really forthcoming in those details.
I also felt that there were some moments in Bulger’s story that didn’t have the proper emotional impact. There’s a scene toward the end of the first act where Bulger’s son becomes incredibly sick and his wife talks about pulling him off life support. The moment abruptly ends with Bulger kicking over the table in the hospital cafeteria. That’s pretty much the last we see of this important moment in Bulger’s life that, possibly, cemented his ability to take a human life so casually.
I supposed it read well in the script, but the way it’s shot seems to give us the desire for one more scene with the child for that emotional closure. I don’t know. That approach can be very mawkish, but for some reason I felt it was a necessity. What’s strange is that Black Mass is usually very economical with its scenes and pacing but still delivers the appropriate impact. The famous “Bulger tracked down a man who bought the winning lottery ticket from a convenience store he owned and proceeded to scare him into splitting the winnings” gets about thirty seconds of screen time but gets its point across. Why that important moment failed is something I still don’t understand.
I’m aware these stories are true and I could read any number of news articles to fill in the missing pieces. But films are about feelings and I think I didn’t get the appropriate one in that scene. It does dilute the impact until at least the third act.
With its flaws, Black Mass is still a great picture that shows an artist finally caring about his craft again. Depp’s performance is an effective one that shows us why Bulger is someone we should still care about.