"I don't believe that evil exists. People have their humanity," actor Johnny Depp has been quoted as saying while promoting his latest film and greatest performance in years as James "Whitey" Bulger" in Black Mass, a film based upon a book by Dick Lehr and Gerard O' Neill.
It's that belief, in my estimation, that serves as the centerpiece for Depp's magnificent and awardworthy performance as Bulger, a now convicted former South Boston crime boss and head of the Winter Hill Gang who was indicted for 19 murders and ultimately sent to prison for life after being convicted of 11 murders, racketeering charges and more. The story of Bulger is a compelling one. While Bulger became Boston's most infamous criminal, his brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch) became a U.S. Senator and former President of the University of Massachusetts system before former Governor Mitt Romney forced his resignation when it was revealed that he'd contact with James during the several years that he was on the run.
Depp manages to paint a complex portrait of Bulger, no small task given that much of America recognizes him as the personification of evil and the man who had the second largest bounty on his head by the F.B.I. at $2 million - second only to Osama Bin Laden.
It has been so long since Depp has had a satisfying dramatic role that you may have actually forgotten the massive amounts of critical acclaim he garnered in such films as Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, Benny & Joon and others. To be fair to Depp, even his lighter fare has led to critical acclaim including an Oscar nomination for Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl and Hollywood's 2008 Sweeney Todd adaptation.
This is different, though. While it's a lot of fun to watch Depp's swashbuckling ways or entertaining ability to immerse himself in fantastic characters and glorious costumes, it has been a while since we've seen Depp truly blowing up the screen, quite literally here, with a performance that is far less about the make-up and far more about Depp's mesmerizing ability to delve deep into the soul of a character. This isn't to say that Depp isn't made up here. If you've seen the trailer, then you know he's definitely made up but in a way that's less about masks and more about becoming the character.
What a character.
While it's worth noting that Bulger himself didn't actually meet with Depp or cooperate with filming, Depp has acknowledged studying writings, videos and archival information about Bulger. While an Oscar win would be a bit of a surprise here, anything less than a nomination would be an injustice.
The story here, as difficult as it is to believe, circles around the unholy alliance between Bulger and the F.B.I. that allowed Bulger freedom to maintain his reign of terror while "cooperating" with an F.B.I. investigation into Boston's mob scene. It is clear by the end of Black Mass that until he was finally arrested, without F.B.I. cooperation, at the age of 81 that Bulger had gotten the best of the deal.
The deal came about because of Bulger's childhood friendship with John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), who unlike Bulger grew up to be an F.B.I. agent. While Bulger agrees to the deal that will help destroy the Italian mob, it becomes quickly clear to Connolly's Boss (Kevin Bacon) that they've made a deal with the devil. Other than Depp, it's Edgerton who really excels here as an agent with a growing sense of dread. As Connolly's wife, Julianne Nicholson isn't given much to do but makes the most of it.
As you might expect, and maybe even hope, there's lots of action to be found in Black Mass, though Depp has argued that it's not truly a gangster film. Rory Cochrane, as one of Bulger's right-hand men, is devastating as Stephen Flemmi. Peter Sarsgaard's appearance as Brian Halloran is almost a "blink and you'll miss it" appearance, but he's freakin' insane while he's around. Dakota Johnson gives the film a broad stroke of emotional honesty.
Benedict Cumberbatch turns an otherwise thankless role into a compelling one. While his dialogue is relatively sparse, Cumberbatch is gifted enough that he can communicate more with silence than many actors could with a monologue. He's perhaps the character you'd like to see more developed than of the seemingly endless parade of familiar faces here, but to his credit he manages to turn in a memorable performance anyway.
Director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart) throws a lot at the screen, most likely too much, and has a difficult time with pacing early on the film but it's almost like he just sort of gave the reins to Depp and watched magic happen. While the film could stand to be edited down a few minutes, it's such a hypnotic couple of hours for Depp that I'd be hard-pressed to pick the scenes to slice.
While it's already known that Depp is dipping back into the Caribbean for another go around, Black Mass may very well be the film that gives new energy to Depp's Hollywood life after the age of 50. With a blazing intensity and the kind of focus and discipline we saw often early on in his indie career, Depp reminds us all that with only a few exceptions no other actor can crawl inside even the creepiest of skins with such tenacity and authenticity. For Depp alone, Black Mass is a must see.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic