Having a perfect career in Hollywood is definitely hard, especially when you’re an adored leading man. All leading men have had their failures, but the best of them quickly pick themselves up and move along and improve the next time. Johnny Depp has been a popular actor for over two decades now, and it so happened that when I started taking a genuine interest in film, he was in the peak of his career. I became a fan somewhere between the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie, and when he played the insanely weird Willy Wonka. I was never a massive fan – I did quite like him, but he never really made an impact at any point that made me consider the fact that he could be considered one of the great actors of his generation. It was only Ed Wood that made me consider him worthy of great acclaim. However, in the last ten years, Depp has become almost a self-parody of himself, starring in grotesque displays of artifice and weirdness, and slowly becoming less of an actor and more of a performance artist. He seemed to have gone to the point of being beyond return. However (and please take this very carefully), there might be a chance that the Johnny Depp that we know and love is still in there, as evident in Black Mass, his first opportunity to play someone “normal” in years.
Scott Cooper has been a filmmaker of monumental interest to me – Crazy Heart was a promising debut, and Out of the Furnace was a flawed but soulful piece. Black Mass is his third film, and while it does keep the tone of being a rough, masculine but emotional story, it does manage to be a film on its own and not one held comparable to the other two films in his filmography. The story of James “Whitey” Bulger is one the would have needed to be told at some point, and Cooper was very smart to step up to the plate and do it. The story fits his style – it is gritty and almost an unorthodox display of patriotism, and of course family values (all themes that fit into his previous films as well). On that front, it was an excellent decision of Cooper to tackle this story, and he uses the source material well to craft the story of one of the most notorious criminals to ever walk the face of the earth, and in some ways humanize him. However, there are deep flaws within Cooper’s filmmaking and the script, which I will discuss later on.
Now I don’t think I have ever really complained too much about an actor not resembling the person they are portraying – while on some occasions, a casting decision can elicit a slight sigh and disapproving glare, it is not something I worry too much about. Johnny Depp does not in any way resemble Whitey Bulger. It is obvious that Bulger’s appearance isn’t familiar to most people, so it wasn’t a major issue. Depp’s casting was completely bizarre to me – not only does he not look like Bulger, but he hasn’t ever really given any indication of being able to play a role like this. I would’ve thought this was the kind of film Depp would try and stay away from, because it is, at the very core, a normal, conventional crime biopic, which Depp hasn’t really attempted, other than perhaps Donnie Brasco, way before his breakout moment. His casting was very strange, and maybe I draw too much on this point because I have been someone interested in crime and fugitives for a very long time, so having quite the knowledge of Whitey Bulger, it seemed very odd, as opposed to someone who isn’t entirely aware of Bulger’s background.
In essence, Black Mass is a film that should’ve been made twenty-five years ago. I could see Jack Nicholson throughout this film, obviously not physically (please come back to making movies, Mr. Nicholson – we need you!), but through Depp’s performance. You know this is the exact kind of role Jack would’ve absolutely killed a few years ago. Obviously, Jack is now deep in his 70s, so it would be very strange for him to play the role, but it seems that Depp is constantly channeling Nicholson. To make matters even worse, Nicholson actually has (in a way) played Bulger…in The Departed. Perhaps I am holding Depp’s performance to too high of a standard…but it is difficult, considering the pool of actors who would’ve suited this character and given amazing performances.
However, that isn’t to disapprove of Depp entirely. I actually did think he gave a very good performance. Depp is very good at playing weird characters, but he also has shown, at a few times, the ability to play a natural, down-to-earth character (Finding Neverland is his crowning glory, alongside Ed Wood). Although I wouldn’t ever call Whitey Bulger the definition of a natural character, considering Depp’s past, it is a bizarre choice that he made to star in this film. However, he plays the role really well. I have no doubt that despite not being a fit for the role, he did his very best to embody Bulger. The only problem is that he clearly was trying incredibly hard, which is admirable, but many other actors could’ve given this kind of performance easily without this much effort. Depp is a decent actor when he wants to be, and he clearly didn’t phone it in here as much as he could’ve. He gives quite a compelling performance at the very least, and that should be noted. I am well aware that the stark majority of this review is about Depp’s performance, but I defend that accusation by noting that all the buzz around Black Mass is about Depp’s performance, so it is only fair that the aspect I concentrate on is his performance, which is pretty much the only reason this film should be watched.
Other than Depp, everyone else is comfortably fine in their performances. Joel Edgerton continues to grow as a rising star with a solid performance as Bulger’s boyhood friend and adult associate. He gives the only truly dedicated performance out of the supporting cast. Benedict Cumberbatch is unstable and inconsistent as Billy Bulger, Whitey’s politician brother. Dakota Johnson is wonderful, but too brief, as Whitey’s girlfriend, and the Winter Hill Gang, specifically Jesse Plemons and W. Earl Brown – are fine, if not tremendously ordinary. Kevin Bacon does absolutely nothing, and Adam Scott is a huge contender for the award for Most Useless Performance, because he basically stood there for the entire film, just looking at Edgerton and reacting. You could tell he was trying to get his first post-Parks and Recreation gig, and wanted to try something serious, but he honestly just did less than nothing. He did so little, it was actually notable how little he did. Anyway, the supporting cast was fine, but unextraordinary and pretty much just there as a supplement to Depp’s performance.
Other than the performances, Black Mass has some other elements that deserve mentioning. As a crime drama, it bears resemblance to most others – it is just the right length at two hours, it flows well, it doesn’t feel the need to slow down and explain plots and motivations. In that regard, it is a solid crime film that doesn’t do anything spectacularly difficult or unique, and just subsists on being conventional. This is the flaw in Cooper’s filmmaking here – he doesn’t do anything unique or overly impressive. While Crazy Heart was a great film, it was not a film that really stood out on its own merits, and was very much a by-the-numbers drama. Cooper has only made three films so far, so I am not too worried about him being a one-trick pony, mainly because he has never had an absolute masterpiece, and while I don’t doubt that he will eventually make a spectacular film that will be his masterpiece, until then, we don’t have anything to compare Black Mass to within Cooper’s own career, which is both a blessing and a curse, because while the film doesn’t need to live in the shadows of another film that was more acclaimed or beloved, we have no idea if he is actually capable of making a truly compelling masterpiece. Perhaps he can, and we will see a Scott Cooper masterpiece at some point, or all of his films will remain the same – good, but not great and utterly conventional.
Black Mass would’ve benefited from some tighter writing and some more character development – we are introduced to far too many characters and storylines that are never given background or resolved. A simple example is that of Bulger’s nickname, Whitey – it is a small complaint, but I wonder how many people actually wondered how he was given that nickname, especially since he apparently didn’t like it very much. Perhaps this is just a way for Cooper to perk up the interests of the audience to actually go and learn more about Bulger, or it was just lazy writing that tried to squeeze too much into the already compact film. I lean more towards the latter, sadly.
In the end, Black Mass is a conventional crime film. This is fine for a film like this, because while it never dares to be unique or different, it sticks to the conventions of crime films and thus can’t really put too much at risk, which is always a very good plan if you are tackling a film that could be problematic. It doesn’t dare to do anything brilliant or groundbreaking, but I didn’t expect it to. It was a fine film, and Depp’s performance was very good (but it has been massively overhyped – it was a good performance, but if Joaquin Phoenix gave the exact same performance, it would be seen as one of his lesser performances) and the film as a whole was reliable and solid. I didn’t enjoy it as much as I would’ve liked, but considering I am the person who honestly felt like it was Christmas in 2011 when Bulger was eventually caught, I can never be fully satisfied with something that interested me as much as Bulger’s case. A solid, but flawed, film that is safe, but not all that interesting.