There’s nary a silly hat in sight in Black Mass, widely touted as Johnny Depp’s return to form. After a recent filmography that’s been more miss than hit, it’s refreshing to see the character actor set frivolousness to the side and take relish in a truly dark turn – though in true Depp style, he still couldn’t resist the opportunity to wear coloured contact lenses and a striking hairpiece.
Depp is James ‘Whitey’ Bulger, a notorious Irish-American gangster who worked as an FBI informant through the ‘70s and ‘80s, using his connections to help his Winter Hill Gang triumph over the Mafia attempting to take their turf in South Boston.
As Depp’s steely-eyed crook rises to greater heights and pushes his criminal enterprise in new directions, his FBI handler John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) is inevitably drawn into the corruption, and it becomes less and less clear how exactly the Bureau is to benefit from the arrangement.
Depp is on captivating, fiery form as Bulger. At points the performance is almost overwhelmed by the larger-than-life make-up work intended to capture the real-life criminal’s piercing stare, but this is a far cry from the actor’s recent work, which has at times seen him coast along on costumes and a quizzical expression.
His Bulger is almost impossible to read, bearing the same clinical intensity whether he’s telling a joke, making a threat or, on occasion, doing both at once. It’s a performance that can at points feel one-note, in part thanks to a script that rarely gives Bulger much to do other than appear imposing, but it’s enough to anchor the film as it spans the decades.
There’s a sprawling cast around him, but not everyone is equally well-served. Edgerton shines as Connolly, maturing from a foolhardy kid betrayed by his neighbourhood loyalty to corrupt mob stooge out to save his own skin. Benedict Cumberbatch makes the most of his few scenes as Bulger’s politician brother, and Jesse Plemons builds on his Breaking Bad work, adding layers to a role that could too easily have been little more than an audience surrogate.
Dakota Johnson gets too little to do as Bulger’s wife Lindsey Cyr – this is a film with its attention firmly focused on the man at its centre. Actors as diverse as Kevin Bacon, Peter Sarsgaard, Corey Stoll and Juno Temple all pop up to fill scenes, serving as a reminder than any biopic hoping to straddle multiple decades will inevitably end up over-stuffed, shortchanging much of its cast.
Director Scott Cooper’s film does little to up-end the conventions of the American gangster film, despite the dramatic potential offered by Bulger’s contradictory status as both mob boss and FBI informant, perpetually at risk of being outed as a ‘rat’. It’s a somewhat unique premise mostly squandered by a script more interested in trotting out a conventional mob story, while the sheer variety of disparate plot strands prevents any from feeling entirely satisfying.
At its core then, Black Mass is Johnny Depp’s film, and it serves well as a reminder of what the star is capable of when at his best. As Bulger he is intense, visceral and frightening, the captivating core of a film that doesn’t quite know how to make the most of its central performance then. Depp fans had better cling onto it then: his upcoming roles include Alice Through the Looking Glass, Pirates of the Caribbean 5 and Gnomeo & Juliet: Sherlock Gnomes, so this might be the last we see of vintage Depp for another while.
Words by Dominic Preston