Johnny Depp needed this one.
After a slew of embarrassing performances in awful movies (Mortdecai, The Lone Ranger, Dark Shadows, The Rum Diary, The Tourist), he can now begin to crawl slowly back into the good graces of moviegoers with his work in Black Mass, the biopic of notorious Boston gangster Whitey Bulger.
Depp is fierce, mesmerizing, and downright scary (not to mention unrecognizable) as Bulger, the man who ruled South Boston for two decades and who was later charged with racketeering, money laundering, extortion, and in having a hand in almost a dozen murders. And while “Black Mass” isn’t as finely honed as other Southie-centered pics such as Mystic River, The Departed, and The Town, it’s still a perfect showcase for Depp’s (nearly forgotten) talent.
The supporting cast is also brilliant, including Joel Edgerton as crooked FBI agent John Connelly, Rory Cochrane as hitman Stephen Flemmi, and Benedict Cumberbatch as Bulger’s state senator brother Billy. And perhaps, most importantly, they each pull off a fairly solid Boston accent.
Director Scott Cooper (Out of the Furnace) does a fine job evoking Southie in the 70s and 80s, and he’s able to hone the tension until it’s razor-sharp, but the script by Jez Butterworth (Edge of Tomorrow) and novice Mark Mallouk tries too hard to fit twenty years worth of story into two hours that many of the characters get short shrift, never fully developing past “stereotypical gangster” or “crooked cop”.
Depp, however, is another story entirely. Sure, he has some help from facial prosthetics, ice blue contact lenses, and a hairpiece, but his performance is one of the most intense and frightening to hit theaters so far this year. Every time he’s on screen you have no idea who’s about to get a bullet in the back of his head, but you’re pretty sure someone is. In one particularly menacing scene, he turns a simple dinner conversation about marinated steak into a terrifying face-to-face that evokes Hannibal Lecter.
Black Mass ends up as a movie whose parts are greater than its whole, but it’s worth it just for Depp’s performance alone, which is sure to get plenty of attention come awards season.