Remember when discussing a Johnny Depp movie meant not having to consider at some point whether A) he looked stupid, B) if so, exactly how stupid did he look, and C) whether the stupidity of his appearance affected the overall quality of the film?
Okay, me neither. But the past few years have seen the conversation over Depp’s films completely waylaid by the actor’s almost obsessive desire to work in projects requiring him to spend more time in a makeup chair than on set. And, even in the rare recent film where he’s not altering his face with pounds of facepaint or bizarro hair dye, the plots still revolve around questions of identity (2010’s The Tourist and 2014’s Transcendence come to mind). Hell, the two best roles of his career (the titular Donnie Brasco and Edward Scissorhands) both deal with an outsider struggling to maintain a sense of self while finding acceptance within an insular, alien society. The dude seems to be devoting his entire career to an overarching metanarrative on the societal need for, and reliance upon, wearing masks. His filmography is a self-assembling thesis paper just begging to be written. (I’ll pass, but you knock yourself out.)
So it would stand to reason that Depp would be a natural to play legendary crime boss James “Whitey” Bulger, a man possessing so many different faces that, as a fugitive from the FBI, he was able to keep his true identity a secret for over fifteen years. And in Scott Cooper’s Black Mass, Depp indeed goes full-Depp for the part, once again nigh-unrecognizable underneath a progression of balding wigs and a pair of alarmingly blue contact lenses. It’s a strange look for sure, not altogether unconvincing, although he does resemble more a down-and-out Rob Lowe than the notorious Boston gangster. Unfortunately, Depp’s uneven appearance mirrors the overall tentativeness of Cooper’s crime epic. It’s a hit-or-miss performance in an unbalanced film, a role as undefined and vague as the story it inhabits.
Black Mass aims for the grandeur of a Scorsese-ish sweeping crime drama, tracking the rise and fall of Bulger as Boston’s preeminent hoodlum. And Bulger’s tale is certainly a fascinating one—the guy was the brutal leader of the Winter Hill Gang while at the same time working as an informant for the FBI, passing along secrets about his competition so he could spread influence and consolidate power. But director Cooper, working from a script by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth, never can decide on which Bulger story he wants to portray, or even from whose viewpoint he wants to tell it. The plot develops as a mishmash of angles and perspectives set in a staid, point-by-point chronological order, all hinting at different aspects of Bulger’s personality yet never showing much more than his sneer and those deeply distracting eyes.
The film is framed as a series of interviews with defendants from Bulger’s gang providing info on the mob boss as part of their own plea deals. On its face, this narrative style is compelling, since it has the potential of Rashomon-style subjectivity coming from a bunch of violent men hip-deep in self-preservation. Yet Cooper has no interest in differing perspectives; he wants the truth, and nothing but the truth. But the portrait he develops never feels complete or satisfying; we’re given glimpses of Bulger’s life outside of his criminal empire, but these peeks don’t coalesce into a complete picture of the man or his demons. The film posits Bulger is a doting father, a Robin Hood-esque defender of his neighborhood, a brilliant manipulator, and a dangerous sociopath, and it does so with exactly this style of blatant, ham-fisted description coming from its narrators. There’s no nuance or connective tissue pulling the story together as a whole; it’s just a bunch of different facts from different thugs. Add, once you add in that a majority of the film involves events that none of these guys could possibly know about in the first place, their whole involvement as a storytelling device seems utterly pointless.
The movie generally passes by as a series of dramatically inert sequences that neither offend nor impress. There’s the occasional howler—an emotionally charged hospital confrontation between a distraught Bulger and his girlfriend (Dakota Johnson) actually had me giggling at its blatant Oscar-baiting—but mainly Black Mass simply exists. The awards-ready cast gives it the aura of an off-target attempt at prestige, with most of the supporting performances ranging from forgettable to unfortunate. Joel Edgerton’s turn as FBI agent John Connelly—Bulger’s confidant and conspirator within the bureau—stands out solely for his dodgy accent, while Benedict Cumberbatch serves mostly as set dressing with his role as Bulger’s politician brother Billy. But a few winners can be found here: Corey Stoll does a nice job with his small but invigorating part as a crusading FBI prosecutor, and Rory Cochrane is terrific as Bulger’s right-hand man Steve Flemmi. And the wonderful Julianne Nicholson does what she can with a woefully underdeveloped role as Connelly’s wife. (Come on, Hollywood. Give this lady better work.)
In the end, though, Black Mass rides on Depp’s shoulders, and he’s never quite comfortable with the load. Occasionally he’s effective, but too often you can see him acting through a tough-guy scene, as if he’s getting by on his belief in his talent rather than talent itself. (Doesn’t help that any time he’s not wearing sunglasses you’re sucked right out of the film.) Maybe it’s mask fatigue, both on his part and ours. He’s spent so many years playing odd, fringe characters that no one—him included—can remember how a human Johnny Depp should behave. Call me picky, but pondering whether an actor now has to wear a mask just to be himself is not what I want to focus on while watching a gangster movie. It will make great fodder for that thesis paper, though. Let me know how it turns out.