Black Mass (2015)

Director: Scott Cooper
Writers: Jez Butterworth & Mark Mallouk
Cinematographer: Masanobu Takayanagi
Composer: Tom Holkenborg
Cast: Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Rory Cochrane, Kevin Bacon, Jesse Plemons, Peter Sarsgaard, Dakota Johnson, Corey Stoll, Julianne Nicholson, Adam Scott, Juno Temple, David Harbour.

Johnny Depp is still playing adult dress-up, but at least this time around the project he chose is good. During the 90s I was a huge fan of Depp and his offbeat take on Hollywood. If it weren’t for Tim Burton and a handful of other experimental directors, Depp would have not been employed, as he was seen as the weird theater kid that nobody really knew how to utilize. Some of his greatest performances came from this period: Ed Wood, Edward Scissorhands, Gilbert Grape, and Raoul Duke. And then came Jack Sparrow. At the time, incredible now in retrospect, Disney was terribly apprehensive of Depp and of his bizarre approach to the pirate role, which the actor was mostly basing on an homage to Keith Richards. For Depp it seemed to fit quite nicely with the direction of the type of character he gravitated to and the type of movie he was used to making, except that this one proved to be a huge success. Suddenly Depp was a bankable star and began making big budget films. The problem is that the bigger budgets also seemed to enhance Depp’s weirdness factor and suddenly the actor’s schtick felt at odds with the magnitude of the action around him, the special effects, the ostentatious colors and designs… It was all too much. In Ed Wood you had a black and white tiny little film that required Depp to play things up, had it been in color and had it been a massive production who knows how his performance would have been received. But post Pirates suddenly the actor was just too loud, too abrasive, too much. From Willy Wonka to the Mad Hatter, through every subsequent incarnation of Jack Sparrow, passing through Tonto, Mortdecai, Sweeney Todd, and whatever The Tourist was, it seemed like we had lost Depp to his own insanity for good. Until now…

In Black Mass Depp plays the Boston mobster James “Whitey” Bulger, and he really taps into a scary and terrifying place to embody the man whose rap sheet is long and includes everything from murder to racketeering. Aside from some distracting blue contact lenses, Depp disappears convincingly into the role, looking and sounding the part – for once all his ticks and quirks make sense, something he did so well at his peak, but have inhibited him ever since. The story itself is incredibly compelling: turning Bulger into an “informant” by a friend turned FBI agent (Edgerton) allowed the mobster to have free reign over the criminal activity of Boston and made him virtually untouchable. The film is dark and violent and mesmerizing. The streets of Boston feel like Scrosese’s early New York City: full of grit, grime, and danger lurking around every corner.

The cast is strong, an eclectic mix of television and celluloid actors, although there may be a few too many famous faces in very small parts, which at times gets a bit distracting. The few female characters are really unimportant, whose collective screen time is easily in the single digits, and could have been omitted without changing a single thing about the film as a whole, which is unfortunate because of the wasted talent. Rory Cochrane (CSI: Miami) especially stands out as one of Bulger’s henchmen. Joel Edgerton could be considered the other lead in the film. Playing the FBI agent, childhood friend, accomplice of Whitey, a lot rests on the character’s shoulders, as far as plot advancement is concerned. The actor has been working and making films since the mid 90s, but it wasn’t until the small Australian indie Animal Kingdom came out that he began to become noticed and receive larger parts. He was good in Black Mass, but just like in other projects he’s been in that I have really liked (such as the fantastic Warrior), I am still waiting for him to actually impress me. For now he is just present, but he needs to start standing out and become memorable or I will have to keep checking his IMDB to remember his name and what he’s been in.

I would like to be able to predict that this movie marks a new chapter in the acting choices of Johnny Depp and that we can hopefully look forward to more brazen and interesting choices on his part, but I am not that optimistic. His next two projects have him returning as the Mad Hatter and Jack Sparrow. I guess we should just be glad we have this film and wait patiently for the next time Depp decides to showcase his obvious talents once again.


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