Despite a directionless script and broken moral compass, Black Mass marks a turning point in the faltering career of Johnny Depp.
When you think about Johnny Depp, what springs to mind? You’re most likely imagining an assortment of wacky characters and silly hats surrounded by gothic melodrama, right? Well, prepare to have that image shattered by Black Mass, Depp’s first film in a long while that dispenses with flamboyance and instead focuses on intense character drama.
From director Scott Cooper, Black Mass is a biopic about James ‘Whitey’ Bulger (Depp), one of Boston’s most notorious gangsters during the late 70’s and early 80’s; it’s a classic tale of rags to riches that sees Depp headline an impressive cast that incorporates Benedict Cumberbatch as Whitey’s senatorial brother William, Joel Edgarton as John Connolly, a crooked cop inside the FBI, and Dakota Johnson, Whitey’s long-suffering wife Lindsey.
This might not be Depp’s first foray into the gangster genre (he previously teamed-up with Michael Mann to play the iconic John Dillinger in 2009’s Public Enemies), but it is his most fascinating. By eschewing his trademark larger-than-life characters for something a more muscular, Depp disappears into the otherwise conventional role and makes it one of his most memorable in years. Dripping with malice and driven by a voracious thirst for blood, Whitey is a cookie-cutter character whose motivations and arc are substantially elevated by Depp’s unsettling performance. The tension skyrockets whenever Depp strides onto screen; you’re never quite sure whether he’s going to hug someone, or shank them.
Meanwhile, hot on the heels of his outstanding directorial debut in The Gift, Edgarton continues to excel with another compelling and nuanced performance. Connolly is the character with the most depth here, and Edgarton sinks his teeth into the role with aplomb; cunning, intelligent and increasingly desperate, Connolly’s frantic efforts to cover his tracks make for some of the films lighter moments, whilst the domestic drama at home with his wife Marianne (Julianne Nicholson) keeps the tension tightly wound.
However, two great characters aren’t enough to save this film from sliding into mediocrity; despite his compelling lead duo, Cooper fails to breathe life into a flat screenplay that fizzes to an unsatisfying and muted finale. After starting strong, the final third of this film felt disappointingly unambitious and we’re left with an underwhelming conclusion where all the loose ends are resolved through conventional ‘where are they now’ credits.
Furthermore, I felt that the film lacked a clearly defined emotional anchor; Depp and Edgarton may give brilliant performances, but at the end of the day they’re still unlikeable people doing immoral things. Devoid of an honest do-gooder to put them in their place, the film feels desperately bleak and hollow; Kevin Bacon, Adam Scott and Corey Stoll are the closest we get to ‘heroes’, but they’re left to float around on the periphery saying little and doing even less.
The Verdict: 6/10
As a result, the film loses steam somewhere in the middle and never recaptures it. Black Mass isn’t a bad film; it just doesn’t quite know how to fit all the elements together to make a satisfying whole. Depp’s performance alone makes this film worth a watch, but don’t expect the narrative to transcend the tight confines on the genre. And the less said about Cumberbatch’s gawky Boston accent, the better.
Black Mass is in cinemas across Australia from tomorrow (Thursday October 8)