Remember when Pirates of the Caribbean came out back in 2003? It was a pleasant surprise, in no small part due to a clever pirate caricature from Johnny Depp. But then, Depp sort of lost his mind, and just kept making them while also continuing to pair up with Tim Burton in the midst of a massive slump in Burton’s career (Alice in Wonderland, Dark Shadows, Sweeney Todd). For almost a decade, with a couple of exceptions, Depp has been playing caricatures of caricatures, quirky goofballs that require little more than jerky movement and changes in vocal pitch. And during that time, I forgot something.
Johnny Depp is a phenomenal actor. Perhaps he just got lazy, perhaps he liked the money, perhaps he genuinely wanted to just make fun, silly movies - even bad ones. But it felt like he lost his way.
Today, with the release of Black Mass, Depp seems to plant his feet firmly back on the path. The film is a biopic of the life of James “Whitey” Bulger, a Boston-area crime lord responsible for the majority of Boston rackets, gambling, drugs, and organized crime murders for nearly two decades. Bulger was a fixture in Boston news for a long time, a neighborhood kid who grew up in the Southie projects, who did almost ten years in a combination of Leavenworth and Alzcatraz in the 50s and 60’s, during which he signed up a program wherein the CIA tested drugs like LSD on inmates for reduced sentences. He got out, colder and deadlier, and quickly beat and murdered his way to the upper echelons of Boston crime. He was infamous, and then the walls started to close in — in no small part due to the exposing of a years-long secret deal with the FBI — and he simply disappeared, for over ten years. And of all the actors in the world, Depp was picked for the role.
And my god, does he absolutely crush it. Capably directed by Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart, Out of the Furnace) the film is very good, even if it recklessly recycles the tropes from every other crime film, clearly borrowing stylistic and storytelling elements from everything from White Heat to The Departed. But it recycles them well, keeping the story moving and rarely getting bogged down in its own cliches. The film is dark and unflinching, refusing to glamorize Bulger and instead showing him for the relentless, cold-blooded psychopath that he is. It centers around him and his inner circle, including Kevin Weeks (an excellently understated performance by an unrecognizable Jesse Plemons) and his personal hitman Steve Flemmi (Rory Cochran, implacable and unflinching at every turn). Meanwhile, it also deals with the crooked machinations of FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) as he wheels and deals with Bulger, his childhood friend, using Bulger’s intel on the Italian mafia to advance his career, while accepting payoffs and kickbacks and trying to avoid the scrutiny of his higher ups, played by Kevin Bacon and a strangely miscast Adam Scott (the only one who really seems adrift in the film).
The performances are mostly strong, with Scott given the least to do and also being the least effectual. Edgerton does reasonably well as the weaselly Connolly, and Bacon could play FBI agent Charlie McGuire in his sleep. The women in the film are barely utilized, sounding boards and foils for the men’s character development, but it’s not unfair to state that this was a time when both crime and crimestoppers were fairly heavily male-dominated. Still, wasting the talents of actresses such as Julianne Nicholson and Dakota Johnson (both of whom are very good in their limited roles) is a tiny bit frustrating. The film’s weakest aspect — and I realize this might be particular to locals — is that the accent work ranges from outstanding (Depp) to capable (Cochran, Plemons), to occasionally painful (Edgerton) to truly, truly terrible (Benedict Cumberbatch, in a smaller role as Bulger’s politician brother Billy Bulger). I’m not sure why actors can so frequently nail New York accents and yet botch the Boston one, but it’s all over the map and often distracting. The most egregious is Cumberbatch, who seems to be going for that clenched-jaw, New England Ivy League, Kennedy-esque squawk, but ends up sounding like Mayor Quimby after being popped in the nose.
But it’s Depp who owns the film and ultimately makes it worthwhile. He’s a terrifying vision of quiet, clever, conscienceless evil. With a brilliant makeup job consisting of thinning hair, pallid skin, jacked up teeth and ice-blue eyes, he’s fiercely intense. It’s not a stereotypical criminal part — neither pure lunatic nor Machiavellian prince of crime. Instead, it’s a man with violent tendencies who uses cruelty as effectively as cajoling. He helps old ladies with their groceries, gives generously, but every move and gesture is coldly calculated. There’s nothing he won’t do, but he does each act — murder, beating, stealing, bribing — when it’s necessary, according to his own moral compass. The catch, of course, and this is what Depp captures so brilliantly, is that compass is deeply, irreparably broken. Depp has cast out all of his quirky laziness and instead infused this character with a stillness — tightly wound, full of dark fury and buzzing insanity, to be sure — yet also quiet, calm, and focused from all outer appearances. It’s a smart, nuanced portrayal and easy one of his best. Black Mass is ultimately a solid crime thriller with some strong performances that on any other day I’d say is good, but maybe not theater-price-good. But it’s Depp that closes the deal, elevating its worth and making it worth the trip.