Few actors can truly disappear into a character the way Johnny Depp can. He’s used this skill for the past decade to basically clown around and make millions and millions of dollars.
But Johnny has decided to get serious again in “Black Mass” by embodying, to creepy perfection, brutal crime lord Whitey Bulger.
But while Depp predictably cranks it out of the park with one of those performances that practically begs to have awards thrown at it (Historical figure? Check. Mafia? Check. Lots of makeup prosthetics? Check.). Ultimately, he is not what elevates “Black Mass” to such above-average heights.
Nor can we praise the top-shelf supporting cast that only movies of such similar prestige can boast. You’ve got the likes of Peter Sarsgaard, Jesse Plemons, and Rory Cochrane playing Bulger’s underworld cronies. Then on the other side, you’ve got Adam Scott, Corey Stoll, and Kevin Bacon (this movie is yet another boon to all you “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” fans) as the feds trying to bring Bulger down.
Then you’ve got those caught in the middle like Benedict Cumberbatch (doing tremendous battle to hang onto that Boston accent) as Whitey’s “legitimate” and politically successful brother Billy, and Dakota Johnson as the poor girl unlucky enough to let Whitey father her child.
No, they all simply come together to produce what would be yet another rise-and-fall of a criminal antihero that we’ve been watching since the days of James Cagney.
What makes “Black Mass” stand out among the crowd is the character of John Connolly, played by Australian actor Joel Edgerton.
Connolly grew up in the same neighborhood as the Bulgers and went on to work for the FBI. When the two first cross paths professionally, Bulger is the head of a small-time crew in South Boston and Connolly is looking to make his mark in the Bureau. Bulger and Connolly form a partnership where Bulger gives information about his enemies to the FBI while Connolly works to ensure nothing too incriminating sticks to Bulger.
Their rise to the top of their respective fields is meteoric.
What makes Connolly’s rise and fall all the more tragic than Bulger’s is it starts from a place of perceived nobility. Edgerton plays it all perfectly, creating a fascinatingly unique and pitiful character that goes well beyond all the “crooked cop” clichés we’ve come to know and love in movies of this ilk.
Director Scott Cooper has shown flashes of talent in his two previous, uneven efforts “Crazy Heart” and “Out of the Furnace.” Here, Cooper does his best Scorsese impression with lots of unflinching violence and clever camera work.
Cooper does fall a little too much in love with Depp’s performance as we get about two too many scenes reinforcing Bulger’s monstrousness. We get it, he’s a bad dude. That was clear after the first five people we watched him beat/shoot/strangle to death. Point made.
Even with its few shortcomings, “Black Mass” is a powerful, well-made, well-acted film. Depp is the first out the gate in the Best Actor race, the question is will his performance hold up over the next couple of months? Even if it doesn’t, it’s nice to see Depp push himself in this direction in a movie worthy of his talents.
“Black Mass” is rated R for brutal violence, language throughout, some sexual references, and brief drug use.