By now, we've all seen Johnny Depp portray a wide array of outlandish characters from underneath some garish makeup. Whether it's pirates or Native Americans, men with scissors for hands, or insane hatters, part and parcel for a majority of Depp's career has been outrageous visual choices to match or even exceed his characters. With Black Mass, once again makeup and visual choices have a strong presence in his role, however it's used to transform him into an average looking man. From the outset it is this transformation into a balding middle aged man with piercing blue eyes and yellowing teeth that makes the biggest impact in Depp's performance as notorious gangster James "Whitey" Bulger. Great detail was put in to the set design and makeup to give Black Mass a legitimate late 1970's feel. And it's in these 1970's where we begin our story of the parallel rise of a gangster and an FBI agent, and the secrets that made it all possible.
Black Mass is billed as being the unbelievable true story of James "Whitey" Bulger as he evolves from a tough guy from the south side of Boston into the man who ran every illegal enterprise in the state and even beyond. But the story is much more than that. It is as much a story of FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), a man who grew up on those same tough streets with Bulger. Both men took separate paths in adulthood, but as Connolly rose through the ranks of the FBI, he created a partnership with his old friend. Under the guise of using Bulger to take down the Italian mafia, Agent Connolly helped to create a monster who was protected by the government and who used the FBI to take out his competitors. Eventually, with the help of a new FBI director (played by Ant-Man's Corey Stoll), things begin to unravel for both men, but not before several people end up in the ground at the hands of Bulger.
The story of Bulger is a great modern gangster story, and the film is a recounting of the details as told by his former associates, played by Jesse Plemons, Rory Cochrane, & W Earl Brown. The unfortunate part of this film is that it left a lot of the best parts of Bulger's story on the cutting room floor. The middle of the film sagged, and no amount of great acting could save it. We get several scenes in FBI boss Kevin Bacon's office, as he and Joel Egerton, Adam Scott, and David Harbour discuss what to do. There's talk of action, but surprisingly to me, very little actual violence. The rise of Bulger is done mostly off screen, as we're just told that he's become more powerful, but there's very little evidence of it.
The more interesting story is that of Agent Connolly. He goes courting the devil and becomes a gangster with a badge. He so desperately wants to be somebody and gain the acceptance of his old neighborhood boys that he is willing to do anything to help Bulger. He tries to impress Bulger's brother, Senator Billy Bulger (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) with his badge, but is rebuffed. But as soon as his affiliation with Whitey pays dividends within the Bureau, he revels in his rock star status. He begins to alienate those around him, worried more about Bulger that even Bulger is himself. Joel Edgerton turned in a terrific performance once again. The previously mentioned Cumberbatch wasn't asked to do too much, and attempted some form of New England accent that never quite landed.
In the pantheon of gangster movies, this doesn't make it's way to the top by any means. The performances of Depp and Edgerton carried a somewhat sluggish script. There were times where Depp completely disappeared into the role, which has led some to talk of Oscar considerations. I wouldn't put it into that category just yet, but it is a nice reminder of the man who has shown impressive acting instincts when not weighted down with the recent over-the-top ridiculous roles. It seems that director Scott Cooper has found a niche that he enjoys, with dark character studies. My only wish was that we got more of the character in this film, and less of others talking about what he was.
Jamison Rabbitt can be found talking about movies on his podcasts Real Films Podcast & Movie Mojo Monthly as well as moviepilot.com/RABBITT