Turns out the thing Johnny Depp’s career needed was simple. He needed to play a type of role relatively new to him, even if it’s relatively familiar to the rest of us.
Some scenes in the solid, vividly acted gangster picture Black Mass come from real life, or something like it. These trade off with scenes yanked straight out of the movies. In a major GoodFellas moment, Depp, as South Boston underworld kingpin James “Whitey” Bulger, has been invited over for steaks on the grill at the home of his old neighborhood pal and current Federal Bureau of Investigation liason and protector, John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), along with Connolly’s colleague, John Morris (David Harbour). Connolly’s wife is upstairs, both angry and fearful about the social engagement.
Bulger raves about the marinade. What’s the recipe, he asks. Morris says, can’t tell you, it’s a family secret. Then Morris capitulates with a smile and says, well, I’ll tell you, it’s soy sauce, a little garlic.
He fixes Morris with an icy blue stare; Depp probably took the role simply to be able to wear the scariest contact lenses in movie history. In a low Southie growl Bulger responds: How can I trust with you with anything if you spill an alleged family secret so easily? The room gets very chilly, and the specter of Joe Pesci’s “I amuse you? How?” routine in Martin Scorsese’s gangland chronicle floats above the proceedings.
The true-crime film, directed with calm authority by Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart, Out of the Furnace), draws direct and indirect parallels to other films, GoodFellas and The Departed among them. (Scorsese is the inevitable elephant in this mobbed-up room.) Beyond the Hong Kong thriller Infernal Affairs, which Scorsese and screenwriter William Monaghan adapted for a Boston setting and took all the way to the Oscars, The Departed drew some pulpy inspiration from the criminal exploits of the real-life criminal, convicted killer and eventual fugitive Bulger.
Here’s the rich part. Bulger’s brother, Billy, was the most powerful politician in Massachusetts, the president of the state Senate. Black Mass revels in multidirectional corruption. The script by Jez Butterworth and Mark Mallouk uses Connolly as a symbol of the good man brought low by temptations and by neighborhood loyalty.
After a prologue, in which one of Bulger’s Winter Hill Gang associates (Jesse Plemons) recounts his story to the feds, the movie zips back to the mid-1970s. It traces Bulger’s rise; his relationship with a sometime mistress played by Dakota Johnson, with whom he has a son with his own tragic destiny; and an empire founded on slots, vending machines, drugs and extortion, plus murder.
Then comes the sweetheart deal, just as some FBI higher-ups are getting suspicious about the leeway the local boys are giving Bulger. Connolly makes a proposition: If Bulger helps the FBI rat out and clean up the Irish underworld’s nemesis, the Italian-American mafia, Bulger can do as he pleases. Just lay off the killing, Connolly says. Bulger does not.
The movie goes light on the drug dealing and the seriously grubby business of being one of these people. If anything, director Cooper is so intent on portraying Bulger as a man, not a monster, the man comes off a little softer than he was, probably. The dialogue occasionally enters a realm of fanciful criminalspeak straight out of Damon Runyon. (I’m paraphrasing, but at one point Bulger says to a local cop giving him grief: “It’s a sad day when a good man takes up with his oppressor.”) And yet, in scene after scene, some fine actors go to town and dive into the material gratefully.
With false and rotted teeth, slicked-back hair and a masklike countenance right next door to Kabuki, the makeup and costume particulars of the role no doubt appealed to Depp, who loves to play dress-up on screen. (Most actors do.) He resembles Orson Welles as the older, hollowed-out Charles Foster Kane, only he’s tricked out in black leather and massive sunglasses. Behind those glasses, Depp’s sidelong glances are enough to curdle milk. For a while you wonder: Is this performance going to settle for tics, mannerisms, a collection of character flourishes? But Depp gets past that. Black Mass spreads it around; we see Bulger in his native elements, and his scene partners are up for anything.
Edgerton at times edges over the caricature line as Connolly, but this is the risk a movie runs when it features an excellent Australian actor who’s good at dialects; sometimes the dialect leads the way. Benedict Cumberbatch oozes quiet influence as Billy Bulger. The supporting ranks are lousy with enjoyable turns from Kevin Bacon, Adam Scott, Peter Sarsgaard, Rory Cochrane, Corey Stoll and many more, including Juno Temple in a rare female-driven sequence. She plays a prostitute, naturally, but Bulger’s world was what it was.
The superb Julianne Nicholson plays the conflicted Connolly’s wife. During the marinade dialogue, she’s upstairs, pretending to be sick to avoid being in Bulger’s fearsome company. I’ll go check on her, see how she’s doing, Bulger tells a nervous Connolly. At her bedroom door, Bulger calls her bluff, and then Depp and Nicholson ease into the film’s most unnerving encounter. We see a new, more intimately predatory side to Whitey Bulger in this sequence, and Cooper is smart enough to linger on Nicholson’s horrified reaction. At such moments Black Mass does not feel like other gangster movies; it feels like its own gangster movie, and real life in the bargain.
Black Mass (PG-13): ★★★✩✩