There was a time when Johnny Depp was the most ambitious actor working in movies. For a while now, though, he’s basically just been doing Jack Sparrow light. In Black Mass, Depp gives his most hard-hitting, unpredictable, and audacious performance in years. Watching him here, we’re reminded what a chameleon of an actor Depp can be. While Depp is nothing short of fantastic, it’s a bit of a shame the film itself isn’t quite on par.
Depp plays James ‘Whitey’ Bulger, a dedicated husband, loving father, and notorious criminal. Being a ruthless Irish mobster from Boston, Bulger believes there’s nothing lower in this world than a rat. Yet, that doesn’t stop Bulger from becoming an FBI informant to take down a rival Mafia family. Bulger finds a trusted confidante in Joel Edgerton’s John Connolly, an FBI agent and childhood friend. With Connolly in his pocket, Bulger is literally able to get away with murder. All those dead bodies eventually start to pile up, however, and both men’s worlds come crumbling down.
Much of the film is told from the perspectives of Bulger’s loyal enforcers who must now sell out their boss to save their own hides. We get some great performances from Rory Cochrane as Stephen ‘The Rifleman’ Flemmi and Jesse Plemons as Kevin Weeks. Benedict Cumberbatch also does fine works as Bulger’s politician brother, who constantly finds himself torn between his career and family. Dakota Johnson, who is fortunately finding real work after Fifty Shades of Grey, especially hits it out of the park in a small role as Bulger’s ex-wife.
As terrific as the whole supporting cast is, this is truly Depp’s movie and he totally loses himself in the role. The higher Bulger climbs up the ladder, the more coldblooded and unhinged he becomes. There’s a particular dinner table scene where he seems to be channeling Joe Pesci in Goodfellas, completely leaving us on edge and guessing his next move. Even when we suspect Bulger is about to kill somebody, he still has the audience holding their breaths in suspense.
All in all, Director Scott Cooper of Crazy Heart has made a solid film about Bulger carried by excellent performances. There are times in Black Mass where we see potential for a gangster movie that could rank alongside The Departed, but some underdeveloped characters ultimately hold it back. A lot of people are hastily introduced and then hastily exit without leaving much of an impression. Although the acting is superb, it feels like we’ve barely gotten to know any of these people walking out of the theater.
James ‘Whitey’ Bulger in particular seems to be a mystery to the filmmakers. They know that Bulger was a violent and complicated man, but they don’t really know what they want to say about him. Nowhere is this more evident than in the ending of Black Mass, which basically just cuts to the closing text without any segue. Michael Mann had a similar problem with the central character in Public Enemies, which starred Depp as John Dillinger. Perhaps Bulger is such an enigmatic figure that no film could ever entirely do him justice. Even if the filmmakers don’t offer the complete portrait of Bulger, though, Depp’s performance is more than rich enough to compensate.