Johnny Depp needed this. After the critical and box office failures of The Lone Ranger, Transcendence, and Mortdecai, Depp needed a win and gets one with director Scott Cooper’s Black Mass, a solid drama in which the actor gives arguably the best performance of his career. Considering the work he’s done for the last 25 years, that’s saying quite a bit. (The first Pirates of the Caribbean is still my favorite.)
Depp plays infamous Boston Mafioso James “Whitey” Bulger, an Irishman who rose from petty street thug to No. 2 on the FBI’s most wanted list just behind Osama bin Laden. What’s fascinating about the movie, which is based on Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill’s book Black Mass: The Irish Mob, the FBI and a Devil’s Deal, is the way the FBI allows Jimmy (as he was known to family and friends) to traffic drugs, racketeer, and murder in exchange for information regarding Boston’s underground. The idea is for it to be mutually beneficial (Jimmy gets federal protection, the FBI takes down Boston’s other criminals), but as soon as Jimmy starts taking advantage of the situation, it becomes an ethical abomination for the feds.
There is Oscar buzz surrounding Depp’s performance, and understandably so. His Jimmy is equal parts likeable, stubborn, and monsterous. Depp captures the Boston accent, walk, and mannerisms we expect of someone in Jimmy’s position, but what will leave movie-goers remembering the most are his eyes, which are steely, demonic blue beads. They suggest an omnipresent hardness about Jimmy that fits perfectly with his cryptic smile and sallow complexion. On more than one occasion Jimmy is friendly with someone, then kills the person moments later. It’s frightening because it’s the worst kind of menace: The kind that smiles to your face and then stabs you in the back. I don’t think we’ve ever seen Depp this cold and dangerous before.
The rest of the considerable ensemble is strong as well. Joel Edgerton plays John Connolly, the FBI agent from Jimmy’s old neighborhood who offers Jimmy protection in exchange for information (whether this makes Jimmy a rat is debatable; the 2014 documentary Whitey: The United States of America v. James J. Bulger covers this in great detail). Kevin Bacon, Adam Scott, and David Harbour also play FBI agents with varying degrees of culpability.
Jimmy is supported by the loyalty of his crew, including Stevie (Rory Cochrane), Johnny (W. Early Brown) and Kevin (Jesse Plemons), as well as his girlfriend (Dakota Johnson). Caught in between Jimmy and the government is Jimmy’s brother Billy, a state senator played by the Benedict Cumberbatch. Peter Sarsgaard, Julianne Nicholson, and Corey Stoll also serve the film well in supporting roles.
For as stellar as the performances are, the movie is noticeably void of filmmaking technique. The picture is dry and staid; the production design and costumes, while authentic, do little to feed life into the story. A more dynamic visual style — quicker edits, an engaging musical score, something other than an objective point of view, and creative camera angles — easily would’ve added dramatic punch and made the film more captivating. This is Cooper’s (Crazy Heart) fault and will probably be the reason Black Mass isn’t better considered come awards season.
Still, Depp’s performance alone is enough to make it worth watching. Black Mass is palatable entertainment drawn from real-life headlines for our amusement, and in that limited capacity it successfully serves its purpose.
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