Johnny Depp takes a break from his cartoon characters to stretch his acting muscles in this chilling true story.
In the 1970’s the FBI entered an “unholy alliance” with Winter Hill Gangster James “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp). Whitey’s childhood friend John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) had recently joined the FBI during a time they were trying desperately to crack down on the mafia. Unfortunately,the Feds were failing miserably in this crusade. Connolly is able to leverage this desperation to both protect Whitey, and to propel himself up the ranks. While Whitey repeatedly states “I ain’t no rat” he has no problem selling out his competitors, allowing the Feds to do his dirty work for him, all the while enjoying their legal protection. Whitey’s unbridled rise in notoriety doesn’t go unnoticed, and eventually others begin to look into his connection with the FBI.
Director Scott Cooper assembled an amazing cast for this crime drama. In addition to the aforementioned actors, “Black Mass” also includes wonderful performances by Benedict Cumberbatch, Dakota Johnson, Kevin Bacon, Peter Sarsgaard, Jesse Plemons, Julianne Nicholson, Adam Scott, and Corey Stoll. Some performances are significantly smaller than others, but each nears perfection. If you’ve seen trailers for the film, it’s easily apparent that Johnny Depp steals every scene he is in. Over the past decade Depp has become known for playing quirky characters, each a slight variation on its predecessor. While some are beloved (Captain Jack!) many of his recent incarnations have been despised. Depp’s portrayal as Whitey has been criticized as being just another trick. Simply some blue contacts and some aging makeup. That couldn’t be further from the truth. He inhabits this character so frighteningly that you forget all his other roles. Depp disappears inside of this monster.
The film follows an interesting arc, tonally. In the opening act, we are exposed to Whitey’s human, vulnerable side. We see the people that love and respect him, and those precious few he loves in return. The audience is exposed to the typical anti-hero skewed code of honor that most of us admire in some twisted way. A layer of dark humor drapes over the film, occasionally enticing chuckles. But as we become more and more comfortable with this devilish character, the film masterfully reveals more of his true nature. By the final act, the admiration is gone, and he’s revealed for the cold villain he really is.
Cooper chooses to drench the film in hues of yellow, with occasional splashes of blue for contrast. While this works perfectly in setting the gritty 70s tone, he oddly neglects to do anything different when the story hits the 80s (and later?) Only two or three times in the film are we given a clear cue as to the decade, with an on screen heading. Besides that everything, and everyone appears the same. It’s a minor gripe, in an otherwise exceptional, and detail orientated film.
“Black Mass” is dark, and gritty. While certainly not for everyone, those interested in true crime stories of corruption and murder will certainly enjoy it. If you are a fan of Depp, this is one of his best performances in the past decade and makes a great palate cleanser before his return to the Mad Hatter and Jack Sparrow in the next two years.