There are certain actors, who, though their cinematic choices may have been questionable, have always given their all: Angelina Jolie, Christopher Walken, and the king of this territory: Johnny Depp. Chief orchestration of this downfall seems to stem from his collaborations with Tim Burton, another artist whose successes seem a thing of the past. Luckily, Depp seems to have escaped Burton’s clutches long enough to take hold of something that may very well be his comeback: Scott Cooper’s Black Mass.
Black Mass deals with James “Whitey” Bulgur (Johnny Depp) the real life Irish-American crimelord used as the basis for Martin Scorsese’s The Departed. Operating in South Boston primarily through the 70s and 80s, Bulgur struck a deal with childhood pal, John Connelly (Joel Edgerton), then of the FBI. Connelly, naively seeing Bulgur through the lens of a childhood hero, invites Bulgur to be an FBI informant. In so doing, Bulgur can help Connelly and the FBI wipe out his competition, the Italian Cosa Nostra (a task that seems as xenophobic as it is productive), and provide the FBI with so little useful information as to keep his criminal conscience clear. It’s perfect for him; the FBI is pushed into implicitly supporting his misconduct.
Cooper’s direction picks up similar tonal themes to J.C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year—Black Mass has a faded grimness, permeated only by the eerie twinkling of Depp’s baby blue contact lenses. Despite the near goofiness of the prosthetics, Depp’s understated performance is what really shines through. It’s clear he’s borrowing from gangster films of past, but introduces the slightest emotional tensions into his performance, amidst what could have been an impenetrable psychopath. For Bulgur and the locals of Southie, loyalty, and by proxy, consistency, are the main tenants of their mantra. Thus, when there are surprises, things that life can’t prepare you for, cracks start to appear in the surface. When Bulgur’s mother passes away or a freak accident causes his son to die, it’s truly rattling. “It’s so quiet in here,” Bulgur says to his senator brother William “Billy” Bulgur (Benedict Cumberbatch), shaken and distressed in a house that so regularly is a place of comfort.
Black Mass is not perfect. Connelly reads like a half-baked dope from the beginning and his descent into Bulgur’s depravity is an inevitability. Yet, while most of the film focuses on Bulgur and Connolly, the smaller parts like Peter Saargard as the coked-out associate of Bulgur’s, Julianne Nicholson as Connolly’s wife, David Harbour as John Morris (the FBI agent who unwittingly joins Connolly and ultimately exposes the operation) and Rory Cochrane as Bulgur’s right-hand man, are similarly absorbing. That’s the thing about Black Mass, it’s beautifully miserable, but you can’t look away. We can only hope for now that Johnny Depp remembers the taste of blood in his mouth and wants more of it.
Black Mass opens in Philadelphia theaters today.
Author: Madeline Meyer
Madeline recently graduated from Oberlin College where she studied Cinema Studies. She writes screenplays and ill-received dad jokes. She likes board games and olives.