It’s been a long time since Johnny Depp has contributed much of anything to cinema. From that cartoonish, painfully overdrawn, creative trainwreck of a franchise known as Pirates of the Caribbean to his lifeless, near zombie-esque performances in awful films like The Tourist (2010), Alice in Wonderland (2011), Dark Shadows (2012) and Transcendence (2014), to his utterly embarrassing incognito contribution to Kevin Smith’s ultimately dire Tusk (2014), Depp has been floundering for years, tearing strips off his credibility with every fresh indignity. Only Bruce Robinson’s enjoyable Hunter S. Thompson adaptation The Rum Diary (2011) revealed a glimmer of the actor’s earlier predilection for more interesting, smaller roles.
Something’s different this around though. Depp has finally been paired up with a strong, up and coming director. Scott Cooper coaxed an Oscar-winning turn out of Jeff Bridges for his wonderful debut Crazy Heart (2009) before heading into much darker terrain with his bleak but brilliant, little-seen second feature Out of the Furnace (2013). This exploration of dubious moral boundaries continues with Black Mass (2015), a look at the true crime misadventures of 70’s and 80’s Boston informant James ‘Whitey’ Bulger, played with astonishing veracity by Depp. Bulger was an ugly, venomous creature who used his school chum and senior FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) to wrangle a deal that saw him supposedly drip-feeding the agency with intelligence incriminating the city’s ruling mafia family. Meanwhile he continued to rule the streets as he saw fit, untouched for years by the authorities, as a racketeer, extortionist and vengeful murderer who cleared the path ahead with bullets and brawn.
As with any filmic transcription of real events, some creative departures from the truth are to be expected. And where adherence to logic might be more appreciated and applauded for its novelty factor, the need to charge the narrative with momentum as the years unwind becomes equally important. Bulger’s reign is mostly viewed from internal sources, with the broader focus lacking depth. But this disparity in perspective doesn’t hurt the overall effect too much. Cooper’s direction is polished and combined with the force of Bulger, the film is never less than magnetic. There are partially successful attempts to integrate human dimensions into this portrait of Bulger but even when the mother of his child expresses outrage at the time of the dire diagnosis of their boy’s condition, a fleeting glimpse of Bulger’s softer side is quickly erased by a frightening directive.
Set on drab, grey, ever sunless Boston streets, Black Mass manages to create a genuine pall of unease. The violence is coldly articulated and unsettling, the performances authentically grounded in the believably created milieu of Jez Butterworth and Mark Mallouk’s screenplay. Depp inhabits Bulger with a fearsome edge. He may be layered beneath impressive make-up effects but the transformation is much more than skin deep. He exudes menace and authority in potent doses; we’re never left in any doubt that Bulger is a man few would dare to cross, even Connolly, whose juggling of his official duties and off-the-record scheming to keep things sweet with his friend produces an uncomfortable degree of sycophantic pandering. Overall, the film enhances Cooper’s growing reputation and is a reminder of the seemingly waning or misplaced transformative abilities of Depp, an actor whose performances of recent times have too often disappeared behind a veil of parody and led, not unjustly, to ridicule.