By: STEPHEN McFERRON
After Mortdecai bombed and received disastrous reviews from both audiences and critics, it seemed Johnny Depp’s career had received a death knell. His output had been extremely low-quality of late, and fans were hard-pressed to find any good in recent works. However, just as hope was dying, the teaser for Depp’s next film, Black Mass, began to play.
I was absolutely floored; Johnny Depp in a gangster film–perfect. Having proven his chops in Donnie Brasco and Public Enemies, Depp seemed an unlikely yet interesting choice to play James “Whitey” Bulger, the ruthless Irish crime boss from South Boston. I was excited, but could it live up to the hype?
The answer is yes.
It’s been a long time since a gangster role has disturbed me as much as Depp’s portrayal of Bulger. The work done to create Whitey was absolutely stunning: sinister gapped teeth, receding blonde hair and pale wrinkled skin. He dresses in all black, drives a hearse-like car, and possesses an authentic Irish-Bostonian accent. The character’s sociopathic rage pervades every scene. Not since Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs has a character’s presence been so noticeable in scenes where he is physically absent.
Joel Edgerton gives a tremendous performance as John Connolly. Connolly, a childhood friend of Bulger’s who, now working for the FBI uses his old playmate to elicit information on rival gangs. Emoting conflicting feelings while demonstrating how involvement in crime can change a man, Edgerton’s performance is rivaled only by Depp’s.
Despite Depp’s and Edgerton’s performance, there are a number of detractors.
The story is told in interviews with Bulger’s associates and unfortunately it only works half the time. Sometimes it fleshes out lesser characters but the diverging plot lines eventually become cumbersome.
The buildup of Bulger’s rage could have been orchestrated better. Essentially, we get that he’s always been a cold killer and a significant moment pushes him over the edge. This would have been fine if we saw an escalation of the gangster’s madness as the film played, but the director chose instead to be a bit hasty. Ultimately this becomes a small detriment.
The film is technically stunning. Shot in a format evocative of Leone or Scorsese and coupled with the minimalism of some Hitchcock films, the whole production has a very washed-out, nasty look to it. In Black Mass, Boston is a no-man’s-land where the sun never shines and everyone wants you dead. It evokes shades of David Fincher’s Seven and a little of Fight Club’s nastiness.
Overall, I enjoyed the film. Depp’s performance seems to shine above all detractors, and I recommend seeing it. One could wait for RedBox, but the theater experience is also great.