Evil can manifest itself in the most surprising ways, through people who look like they live happy and normal lives, to those individuals we held as heroes. Sometimes good people do horrible things. However, sometimes that evil is manifested in exactly the type of form you’d expect, and sometimes, it looks like Jimmy “Whitey” Bulger, as played by Johnny Depp in Scott Cooper’s newest film, Black Mass. Depp’s Bulger has a reptilian form to him, white blonde hair slicked back, piercing, blue, dead eyes, a grin that never poses joy but rather looks like his mouth is in a humorless curl. He’s a threatening and domineering presence, with no real loyalty, but a lot of underserved pride. He murdered people and called it a day’s work and Cooper’s newest film, whether you like it or not, is at least a success in the fact that he portrays evil as it should be–repulsive.
Beginning in 1975 and then jumping around for twenty more years, we meet Bulger when he’s still married to his wife Lindsey (an underused Dakota Johnson) with a young son, when he was a respected local gangster, but before he was a crime lord. Enter Jon Connolly (a terrific Joel Edgerton) who wishes to bring down the mafia with Bulger’s help. So, despite his own code of ethics about informants, Bulger begins to inform the FBI in order to help one another meet a common goal. Thus begins the sprawling and corrupt relationship between the FBI and notorious and violent criminal.
Despite some instantly intriguing material to base the film on, Cooper never goes above and beyond what’s expected of him behind the camera, keeping things muted as the performers do the heavy lifting. Cooper, whose prior works include Out of the Furnace and Crazy Heart, isn’t afraid of grim content, however, instead of trying to give the story an edge through a directorial standpoint, he instead becomes a mere bystander. A parking lot shootout that could have become an intense and daring standoff (think the scene between Hank and the twins in Breaking Bad) instead is awkwardly hobbled together, with there being a moment of edge of your seat surprise, before slumping back into by the numbers filmmaking.
It’s what makes the core performances so integral to the film. The script by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth is decent, and creates the right amount of momentum (although it makes the fatal error of stalling right before the third act) but, as is the case with the directing, it never elevates itself beyond the story itself which is interesting on it’s own. Both the script and the directing are emulating other famous gangster flicks, they’re just doing it at the most basic level.
The actors come along to lift the film out of its lethargy with Edgerton at the forefront leading the charge. It’s a testament to his ability as an actor that by the end of the film I actively hated his Connolly. Squirrely, insecure and boosting himself onto the shoulders of others in order to feel tall, Connolly is on par with Bulger in regards to repulsion because of how needy he appeared. He glorified Bulger and his antics, he loved the idea that he could play the cowboy and the outlaw, worming himself in until he believed Bulger saw him as a confidant, unable to realize that Bulger’s care for him went no further than his use. Benedict Cumberbatch is surprisngly effective as Billy Bulger, an imposing man in his own right, allowing Cumberbatch the chance to play a more subdued character, showcasing his more natural charisma. Rory Cochrane and Jesse Plemons play Bulger’s right hand men, both of which get two of the strongest narrative arcs of the film, while Juno Temple continues her reign as the one scene queen, and manages to pull a scene right out from under Depp, solidifying herself as an actress who demands more than glorified extra roles.
Unsurprisingly though, this is Depp’s movie and it’s about as close to the comeback role we all could have wanted for him. Two scenes in particular demonstrate the absolute, buried ferocity he displays as this character, as a man who was actively burying the beast in him in public. There’s one where he faces off with Peter Sarsgaard, repeating “take the money” with an increasing amount of venom dripping from his voice, and a face to face moment with Connolly’s wife, Marianne (Julianne Nicholson). Even without the makeup and the prosthetics, Depp is suitably terrifying.
Good, but not great, just barely reaching the potential is possessed, Black Mass is an entertaining film, and one that manages to keep you interested almost all the way up until the credits. Despite its tired direction, the film is enlivened by some very game performers, and it’s worth a watch just to see Depp get some bounce back.
Black Mass is out now.