Reptilian and pale, like an unhealthy gecko, Johnny Depp is as ostentatious as he’s ever been in Black Mass. He’s just quieter about it.
Depp plays James “Whitey” Bulger, the notorious Boston crime boss who oversaw a reign of terror from the 1970s to the 1990s. Directed by Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart, Out of the Furnace), Black Mass is a fairly routine crime drama, equal parts The Public Enemy and Goodfellas. And so the faces are familiar: stone-faced thugs, hard-faced cops, long-faced women, all based in reality (or at least the Hollywood version of it). And then there’s Depp. With a vampiric pallor and lizard contact lenses, he enters each scene as if he’s just come from a costume party, and won.
The problem isn’t only that the look is distancing; it’s also how the look directs the performance. True, this is no flouncy Willy Wonka or woozy Capt. Jack, yet it’s closer to that than Donnie Brasco, the actual human being Depp played in the gangster picture of the same name. Here, Depp is calculatedly coiled, so that even his stillness is theatrical. If much of Black Mass documents the banality of evil – its everyday matter-of-factness – Depp makes evil (and Bulger) mystical.
You might ask: isn’t Bulger supposed to stand apart? Surely there must have been something that distinguished the actual Bulger from the other criminals he rose above. Yes, but consider how Jack Nicholson – playing a Bulger-inspired character in Martin Scorsese’s The Departed – captured criminal eminence: through star-powered insinuation. The charisma and banality were blended. Depp’s devilishness is outsized and on the surface, without any interior access to the actual man.
The sequences given the most lavish attention are the execution scenes.
This is also partly a structure problem. Black Mass is only Bulger’s story for about a third of the time. The movie opens with a big slab of face belonging to Kevin Weeks, one of Bulger’s henchmen, who has agreed to testify against him. We then spend the first section of the film with Weeks (Jesse Plemons, bringing delicacy to the part of a brute), until Bulger takes the scene. Before Bulger registers as much more than a lethal specter, however, the movie turns its attention to John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), an FBI agent who grew up with Bulger and is now trying to exploit that relationship (before that relationship exploits him). Oh, and lest I forget, Benedict Cumberbatch is also floating around as Bulger’s brother and a possibly legit politician.
A few women get chances to do some really good work in little corners – Dakota Johnson, Julianne Nicholson, Juno Temple – but Black Mass is also very much a boy’s club movie. Perhaps this is why the sequences given the most lavish attention, in terms of craft and care, are the execution scenes. Lushly lit, with stately framing and a slowly advancing camera, these are impressive tableaus of death (check off The Godfather as another influence). But they’re also redundant. There’s nothing we learn about the eighth murder that Bulger commits (or orders) that we didn’t learn from the second or third.
As a genre entry, then, Black Mass is hardly progressive; it’s really not even polished. And if Depp is its draw, that’s a gambit that doesn’t quite work. The Mad Hatter remains mad this time around, even if he’s taken off his hat.