Johnny Depp really hasn’t had a great run the past decade or so, has he? He’s appeared in a number or Disney-produced effects-driven spectacle flicks wherein he played a variation on the same eccentric archetype that gained him mainstream popularity in Pirates of the Caribbean, but that has produced steeply diminishing returns so that even fans of his antics are starting to find them a bit stale. So it only makes career sense for Depp to return to his more understated personas of his earlier cinematic turns, particularly those of Public Enemies and Once Upon a Time in Mexico that saw him portraying a darker criminal element. And as a return to form, this film is sure to win a lot of older-school Depp fans over with its dark and serious tone. However, the film itself feels riddled with missed opportunities.
Depp portrays James “Whitey” Bulger, a notorious Boston gangster of the 70’s and 80’s. The key to Bulger’s success, besides a brutal willingness to do any violence necessary to protect himself and an almost paranoid survival instinct, is that he was well connected. Most notable of these connections, at least as the film chooses to portray it, is with FBI agent John Connelly (Joel Edgerton), a childhood friend whom he feeds information to about rival gangs. This in turn paves the way for Whitey to build a virtual monopoly on organized crime in Boston while having an inside man with the feds protecting him from a full investigation.
The dynamic between Depp’s Whitey and Edgerton’s Connelly is intriguing, though I feel that an opportunity was lost in choosing to structure the plot as procedural rather than as an operatic tale of lifelong friends. It’s clear that Whitey and Connelly have a history through snippets of dialogue, but we never actually see it, and such a dimension to the story should really have had a greater impact on the intense moments when the two men talk to each other as friends on opposite sides of the law. The focus instead falls on their mutual manipulation of their relationship to advance their careers, which is still interesting, but the inevitability of their falls from grace doesn’t feel as impactful as it could have been had their relationship actually been explored more than just the most superficial level.
However, none of this makes Black Mass a bad film. What brings it close to being a bad film is that we rarely get to see much of Whitey’s criminal activity firsthand, but are only privy to it via conversations around tables and office desks. The film’s primary saving grace is Depp, who may not be turning in an Oscar-worthy performance, but is definitely reminding everyone that he is a pretty damn good actor. His secret is that he uses his extensive make-up job as a reliable mask to hide any semblance of the goofy persona we have come to associate with his face. Instead, Whitey is cold and soft-spoken, and only ever raises his voice when he is taking necessary action in heartlessly violent ways, but even then there is never any malice, only a business-like stare. It’s Depp’s best work in years, as unimpressive as that statement may be.
Black Mass isn’t quite the Oscar season opener that many were hoping it would be, and with a lesser lead it would have been a fairly generically dull dud. However, as a Johnny Depp vehicle, this has turned into proof that the actor doesn’t quite deserve to be written off just yet. If you see this film, Depp will probably be the only piece of it you care about. And that’s probably just fine.