Hot Take: Pencil in Johnny Depp’s name on the list of Best Actor nominees for his portrayal of James “Whitey” Bulger. On the back of Depp’s mesmerizing performance and a great somewhat under-utilized cast, Black Mass might even be a Best Picture nominee. Very, very good (not quite great) biopic.
When your recent resume includes Mortdecai, Transcendence and The Lone Ranger, it’s easy to see why a great performance would have some referring to it as a return. If that’s what Johnny Depp’s turn as notorious kingpin James “Whitey” Bulger is, welcome back!
Depp turns in what is, at this point, the best performance of 2015. What’s so mesmerizing regarding the performance is how unrecognizable Depp is as Bulger. It’s a true transformation. Depp is both captivating and terrifying. Depp’s Bulger is more a kindred spirit of Hannibal Lechter than Frank Costello, though, giving Black Mass an odd feel for those expecting your standard gangster flick.
What’s also odd about Black Mass is the way it lingers on the periphery of the heart of the story. While it’s clear Bulger is the head of the Winter Hill Gang, the details of the gang’s activities are spoken of but never seen. The only concrete criminal activity Bulger can be tied to through the portrayal in the movie is murder. There are references to the Gang’s activities and discussions of how criminal Whitey is but we never see any of the activity.
The cast is loaded with talent but the supporting cast’s characters feel woefully undeveloped which keeps Mass from being great. The film hovers on the periphery of the lives of these characters. We learn the most about FBI Agent John Connolly (played by Joel Edgerton) but there is very little insight on what motivates the characters to do what they do. Without those motivations, some of the actions come across as senseless.
Without that depth, Black Mass opens itself up to comparisons of other gangster films and some might consider it “been there, done that” when it comes to it’s portrayal of the gangster in America topic. For me, Depp’s performance overcomes the inadequate storytelling and makes this one of the most compelling films of the year. But it could have been the best with more effective utilization of the subject matter and the supporting cast.
“Spoiler Free” Pros
- Johnny Depp
It really can’t be said enough how good Depp is in Black Mass. As mentioned before, Depp captivates the audience and is a convincing monster. Despite the occasional heart shown, make no mistake about it, Depp’s Bulger is as cold as his icy blue eyes.
- There’s No Glamorization of the Gangster Life Here
Mass avoids the usual adoration given to gang life in other gangster flicks. There is some hinting to it with trips to Florida and talk of money and power but the story doesn’t dwell on it.
- Authentic Feel
South Boston in the 70s and 80s is captured exquisitely here. The accents are on point and the cinematography is excellent.
“Spoiler Free” Cons
Less a con and more a warning, Black Mass is very violent.
- Some of the Storytelling Elements Fall Short
The matter of fact way some of the characters are presented gives the impression of a lack of story. Maybe the director didn’t want to take liberties but it hurts the overall presentation.
- It Is What It Is?
After seeing Black Mass, I found myself asking why the characters did what they did. My only logical conclusion was it is what it is and I’m not sure that’s a satisfying enough answer.