Dog’s Movie House: “Black Mass” Engaging Gangster Biopic Featuring A Return To Form For Johnny Depp!
Howdy Folks! It’s The Kendog!
I count myself as a big fan of the talent of Johnny Depp. I always admired the way he seemed to take roles that were diametrically opposed to his matinee idol good looks. Most of his work with director Tim Burton is wonderfully off-kilter and his Jack Sparrow from The Pirates Of The Caribbean series is one of the most iconic movie pirates of all time. That said, Depp has had a rough few years, seeming to cash paychecks in tent pole films that crashed with a thud more often then soared to box office heaven. Many fans, myself included, wondered whether or not Depp would ever return to that immersive form of acting that distinguished his early career. I am happy to report that with “Black Mass” Depp has created a character in his portrayal of James “Whitey” Bulger that is one of the most compelling and chilling in recent cinematic history.
“Black Mass” tells the story of the relationship between FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) and James “Whitey” Bulger (Depp) the leader of the powerful Winter Hill Gang in Boston during the 1970’s and 80’s. Connolly, who grew up in the same neighborhood as Bulger, uses those connections to turn Bulger into an informant to get at the Italian Mob. Unfortunately, Connolly’s protection of Bulger allowed the kingpin to run amok, robbing, killing and inflicting terror upon the city with little to no legal repercussions whatsoever. This lead to an investigation within the FBI that put Connolly, Bulger, and his Senator brother Billy (an excellent Benedict Cumberbatch) right in the crosshairs of the feds.
“Black Mass” is a unique type of film that works as more of a quiet character drama than a rocket gangster flick. The tropes of gangster films are there: the rise and fall of a hometown hero turned corrupt politician, the inter-department squabbling and ineptitude that lead to the villain’s continuing success as a criminal, etc. But director Scott Cooper (“Out Of The Furnace,” “Crazy Heart”) is more interested in the humanity behind the monstrous acts. Bulger, in particular, is given a human side for audiences to see, especially during the first half of the film, when events such as the death of his son and, shortly thereafter, the death of his mother, lead him into a downward spiral of savagery and violence.
Depp is in incredible form here, and I’m not just talking about the physical transformation. It’s all in those ice blue eyes of his, when Bulger is looking at someone, whether it’s his son or someone he’s about to kill, Depp looks like a snake in human skin waiting to strike. It’s the look of a predator waiting in ambush and it’s absolutely chilling, yet there is a surprising amount of humanity in Depp’s performance. You get the impression that there is something, however small, honorable about Bulger, but as the movie continues anything good about the man is buried under the weight of his acts of savagery and violence.
Depp is not alone in terms of acting excellence. Edgerton continues his role of stellar performances as Connolly, a man who wants to do the right thing but is subverted by his admiration for Bulger and eventual addiction to the perks a criminal lifestyle affords. Cumberbatch is also superb as Bulger’s younger brother Billy, a state senator who tries and fails to stay out of the mess between Whitey and the FBI. Cooper also gets great supporting work from Kevin Bacon, Peter Saarsgard, Jesse Plemmons, David Harbour, and Corey Stoll. Of special note is Julianne Nicholson as Marianne Connolly, John’s wife who realizes her husband is slowly falling prey to the very temptations he swore to fight. There is a scene between her and Depp late in the filming that is absolutely chilling to watch just as much for what isn’t said as for what is. That scene doesn’t work as well as it does without Nicholson’s sterling performance.
The pace does flag a little at times, though Cooper reels things in whenever the script (by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth from the novel by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neil) threatens to wander. I would have liked a little more balance between the character moments and the actual procedural portions of the case, specifically when Whitey went on the run, but those are small quibbles. Overall, “Black Mass” is a massively entertaining gangster biopic that serves as a welcome return to form for Johnny Depp. 4 1/2 Out Of 5 On Kendog’s Barkometer! So Sayeth The Kendog! Note: A good companion piece to this film is the documentary “Whitey: United States Of America v. James J. Bulger.” You can find it on Netflix and it provides more factual detail on what is one of the more fascinating true crime stories in American history.
“Black Mass” is Rated R for brutal violence, language throughout, some sexual references and brief drug use.