Johnny Depp can’t save ‘Black Mass’

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This article was originally published for the University of Denver newspaper, the DU Clarion. It has been republished here with permission. The original can be found here. 

Set in south Boston during the most violent and crime-ridden era of American history, “Black Mass” tells the true story of notorious gangster James “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp, “Edward Scissorhands”) and how he used his corrupt alliance with FBI agent and childhood friend John Connolly (Joel Edgerton, “The Gift”) to stomp out the competition and become a kingpin. Rounding out the cast is Bulger’s senator brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch, “The Imitation Game”), his suffering wife Lindsey (Dakota Johnson, “Fifty Shades of Grey”) and FBI Station Chief Charles McGuire (Kevin Bacon, “Cop Car”).

“Black Mass” is a film where reinvention is everything. Director Scott Cooper (“Crazy Heart”) tries to construct a crime biopic unlike its many predecessors by using an unconventional and widely focused narrative structure. Depp tries to bring prowess back to a career marred by recent failures and criticism with an understated performance refreshingly unlike his typically flamboyant roles. It’s bold, but it’s such a shame that nothing outside of Depp’s role is particularly memorable or effective.

The cast mentioned above is only a small part of an obnoxiously large ensemble. Crime films are infamous for having large casts but here the trope is pushed to its limits. Cooper attempts to escape the crime movie formula by diverting the plot’s focus to elements of these supporting characters’ stories and examining how Bulger impacts them.  Ironically, this is where the film starts to fall apart.

While Depp delivers a powerhouse performance by bringing a quiet menace to a character that could have been a caricature, the supporting cast mostly falls flat. Almost everyone on screen acts as if they are pleading for Depp to reappear and regain the momentum. Edgerton, Cumberbatch and Bacon—usually fine actors—are as stiff as petrified wood. Trapped behind their semi-painful Boston accents, the actors can’t register much emotion beyond empty stares and overplayed bewilderment. Often the audience is left to wonder why they are even watching anything other than Depp, the exception being a surprisingly passionate, but irritatingly brief, performance from Johnson. After her controversial “Fifty Shades” stint, she too is trying to assert that she’s a force to be reckoned with.

Cooper is a perfectly capable director, but beyond that he fails to really commit to anything inventive, and the film’s jarring pacing can leave viewers unsure of what is actually going on in Bulger’s grimy world. The style felt much like that of the classic “The Silence of the Lambs” with its claustrophobic, tense shots and tendency to give far less screen time to its most famous character (Bulger is a slightly more restrained yet less elegant Hannibal Lector).  The difference, however, is that Cooper’s vision lacks the finesse of that superior film. Despite everyone’s best efforts, “Black Mass” is simply an entrancing performance surrounded by a film that audiences have seen many times before.

Final Verdict: “Black Mass” is a welcome return to form for Johnny Depp, but otherwise fails to create an exciting and original tale of corruption.

Ryan Ninesling