After nearly a decade of trash roles — including 30’s mobster flick, Public Enemies — Johnny Deep completely redeems himself with one of his best performances yet: Mr. James “Whitey” Bulger, the most notorious gangster Beantown had ever seen…
Depp is entirely haunting in his portrayal, constantly towing the line between genuinely loyal and charismatic neighborhood family man to ice cold murdererous creep. One thing is certain, however: Depp’s sadistic confidence radiates every scene. Those eyes! And regardless of whether Depp’s — largely callous — characterizations were absolute to Bulger or not (there’s been a questioning of legitimacy from those who “knew” Whitey who’ve seen the movie), his performance is still so magnetic it doesn’t matter. This is Hollywood, and excessive make-up job aside (Bri noted that one), this Depp is as relentlessly close to a real life Jack Torrance as you’re gonna get.
Depp’s manipulative mobster is not the only one to roll out a wicked stelluh perfahmance, eithuh. In a who’s who sea of capable, big name supporting actors — everyone from Ant-Man‘s Corey Stoll to Fargo‘s Jesse Plemons to the six degrees of Kevin Bacon — Joel Edgerton is nearly as mesmorizing as Depp with his loyal-to-a-fault FBI agent, John Connolly. Here’s a fame-hungry guy also towing that very small South Boston childhood line between “cop and robber”.
The film brilliantly sets up Connolly and Bulger’s cordial agreement (of Federal protection) as adults based on their undying friendship as youths; of course, no deal with the devil ends well, and it ends far worse for the cop than it does for the robber–or, in this case, serial trafficker, extorter, murderer. With all that Bulger’s gliding away with, Edgarton’s heart is as scattered as seasonal consistency from the Sox, and his Southie accent is on-point, too.
As a native Dunkin’ Donuts sippin’ Masshole old enough to remember the Whitey Saga (but not old enough to remember the dead body chronology of the Winter Hill Gang), Black Mass is also one of the most authentic films from my native land. Gone are all the usual, shiny exteriors shown, depicted, and established from The Hub, like the Boston Common, and–ya don’t really think Bulger hung too much around Fenway, did ya? Instead, viewers are blessed with the “pub decadence” of blue collar, late-70s Irish Southie, the trappy red-tight corners of North End Italia, and the historic high society bricks around Beacon Hill. The insides of the Government Center take up a good portion of the film, too; but, hey, they’re offices.
Director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart, Out of the Furnace) allows his top billing to do all the tricks, and shoots & styles Black Mass as straight and narrow a gangster film could be. There’s no 5-minute montages with spinning lenses and rocking Rolling Stones tunes. Oh wait, there is one significant Jagger & Co. anthem–but it’s Boston and a mob movie, so that’s pretty much mandatory. Junkie XL keeps the film’s tension and mood as asphyxiating as the shots above the score.
Those looking for another Godfather, Goodfellas, or, hell, even The Departed (to which Scorsese’s masterful remake of Internal Affairs had a very “loosely based” Bulger played by Jack Nicholson), have come to the wrong place. Black Mass is a sheer biopic; no more than a character focus on a gangster who merely abused — and humiliated — the system. When things end a little abruptly because us adrenaline junkies are, you know, used to things like the big C&R shoot-out in Heat; the cocaine-fueled “hello” and goodbye in Scarface; and the many epic stand-offs or plot twists in previous gangster films, just understand that this is based on a true story.
No one knows what happened between the day Whitey left and the day he was caught except maybe his Head of the Mass Senate brother, William (played by future “Doctor Strange”, Benedict Cumberbatch). To this day, neither Bulger will say much about…much. And the film is affected by all the mystery during White’s life on the run, and the fact that Billy is little more than “he’s my brother, and that’s it”. Let’s just say Cumberbatch’s performance is admirable considering he didn’t have much to work with.
We also don’t know jack about the Bulger brothers’ relationship after Whitey became America’s Most Wanted fugitive. A lot of Bulger’s “later-in-life” scenes were left for the cutting room floor, and likely for good reason — not much new would have been said — but one can smartly assume that the old Santa Monica man sat on a lot of money and didn’t do much with it.
Sure, this Whitey is cool; but he’s not Wolf of Wall Street cool. Other than a few family-and-friend pot roasts at his mother’s house, and a few BBQ’s with the FBI (always push-ups over shots), Bulger doesn’t swag as much as stab. With his balding-slick graying hair, rotten front teeth, and a ratty snout only a motha could love, Depp gives Whitey an Oscar-nominated worthy spin of The Shining macabre, complete with a chilling, stony-face variation of the Joker and Riddler. He’s terrifying. He’s calculating. He’s addicting.
This is the great Depp we’ve all been waiting for.
Warner Bros. Pictures’ Black Mass in theaters now.