There is no disputing Johnny Depp is one of the great actors of his generation, though it feels like his recent films have put that, as well as his choices in choosing roles, into question. Will Black Mass reaffirm him as the worthiest of global A-listers and save him from the brink of box office disaster?
Black Mass is based on the true story of the infamous criminal James Whitey Bulger, who increasingly terrorized South Boston while playing informant to the FBI. Scott Cooper directs a stellar cast headed by Johnny Depp as Bulger, with Joel Edgerton as FBI agent John Connelly and featuring Benedict Cumberbatch as Jimmy’s state senator brother Billy.
As Bulger, Depp is brilliantly terrifying. He has an economy of movement and words, yet still vibrates a silent ferocity that captures what the real man, who killed a fair number of people with anything from guns to his bare hands, must have been like to be around. The screenplay, co-written by famed Brit playwright Jez Butterworth, carves out the years in which Bulger builds his alliance with the FBI through childhood friend Connelly, who hopes to take down an Italian mafia family with Bulger’s information. Though much is being made of Depp being back to form, Edgerton is at his very best as the increasingly cocky agent allowing his friend Jimmy and his crew the Winter Hill Gang, free reign in the old neighborhood, leading to his own success and ultimate corruption and downfall. He will convert any viewers ignorant of his work, or still lukewarm to him into fans.
The relative good to Jimmy’s bad, Cumberbatch as Billy is playing co-star foil here. Given the importance of a state senator living as the brother of a crime kingpin, sharing family dinners together, he is vastly underused. Yet he still charms and adds dimension to the story, as do Rory Cochrane as Bulger’s right hand man Steve Flemmi, and Peter Sarsgaard as Brian Halloran, a drug-addled associate.
While the acting and story as a whole provide a fascinating platform for these actors to fully inhabit complex characters, there are stretches of time in the film that feel like long unfilled pauses. It creates an episodic feel, like a series of perfunctory historical events punctuated with a few spectacular not-to-be-missed scenes of emotion or violence that significantly buoy up the film.
Make no mistake, this is a movie of extreme violence. One representative scene shows a man bleeding from the eyes nearly popping from his head as he’s being strangled to death. Another shows someone being shot in the face. To capture the brutality and cruelty of a man who stayed for 12 years second only to Osama Bin Laden on the FBI’s most wanted list to full effect, one might argue the necessary display of violence, but Black Mass is not for the squeamish.
While it may not get a top grade, Black Mass is still a must-see for the cinematic partnership of Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, and Benedict Cumberbatch.