by Adrian Lopez
Black Mass, Warner Bros Pictures
Starring Johnn Depp and Joel Edgerton
This film has been on my radar for quite some time now. I'm not sure if it's because Depp is a phenomenal method actor, or because theaters insisted on banging the above trailer into our heads before every movie we watched this summer (we watch a lot of movies here, if you haven't noticed yet). Nevertheless, I'm usually a sucker for those "based on a true story" flicks, especially if it involves crime. There's something very exciting about the thought of people getting away with some much. Call it living vicariously if you want. We all secretly dream about being the bad guy.
This true story tells the tale of James 'Whitey' Bulger (Depp) and his rise from a small-time crime boss to big-time crime lord in South Boston. The kicker is he has help in the form of FBI agent and childhood friend John Connolly (Edgerton). Connolly, looking to make a big bust, offers amnesty to Bulger's seedy activities in exchange for information on the Angiulo Italian Mob Family. Bulger, facing pressure from the Angiulos, agrees, on the clear understanding that he isn't a rat. Bulger goes unchecked and his empire grows. It's only until it's too late that the FBI realizes Bulger was true to his word and giving them information that was streets behind.
Obviously we're gonna talk about Depp here. In bouncing this review around in my head, I realized Depp always plays larger-than-life characters such as Captain Jack Sparrow, The Mad Hatter, Sweeney Todd, and Barnabas Collins just to name a few. Could he do a regular human!? A calculated dramatic role? The answer is: absolutely. In fact, I'd go so far out as to say Depp's performance is new and fresh. I don't think we've ever seen him take a role like this. His Bulger intense and intimidating. He has this incredible vibe where he's calm because he knows he's under control, but always calculating and assessing the situation he's in. Depp pulls this off simply with eye movements and slight, nuanced facial changes. It's really a treat to see.
The good acting doesn't stop there. Edgerton does an incredible job of playing Connolly, a person trying to keep their head above water. He's incredibly confused. It's almost as if he wants to be his childhood friend Bulger, attempting to look like he has things under control at home and at work, while also trying to look as innocent as possible as Bulger starts mucking everything up. It's a terrific juggling act to watch on screen.
Finally, there was some beautiful camerawork done here. Sprawling city views and wallpaper-ready shots kept every scene change interesting. There was also some really neat symbolism in a couple of shots. The one that stands out to me is when Connolly is starting to seem suspicious to the FBI, and Adam Scott's FBI Agent Robert Fitzpatrick walks away from Connolly's office, continuously watching him through his Connolly's office glass walls. The blinds are all open, however, and it creates this fantastic image of Connolly in jail. Great stuff.
I'm still not sure what to think of this, so hear me out as I work through it on this review: There's a possibility either this wasn't "Hollywood'ed up" enough, or Bulger's story wasn't "crazy enough". I say this because when compared to something like Pain and Gain or Gangster Squad (which were both based on true stories, but very glam'd up), Black Mass lacks a bit of punch. You don't leave the theater jazzed up and wondering more about the real-life counterparts. The actors did a fantastic job fleshing them out for us. But you wonder about the story overall. Was that it? Seems that way.
The other thing that bugged me, albeit not as much as the aforementioned, was that there were a handful of times it was blatantly obvious Depp was in makeup and prosthetics. It gets distracting as your think about how the makeup team pulled off the balding, how itchy Depp's eyes must've gotten wearing those contacts, etc. You know what I mean? We never question Depp growing out dirty dreadlocks for Sparrow, or why he's so freakin' pale as Willy Wonka. We just fall into the character. In the case of Bulger, it's on your mind constantly.
Finally... why does Cumberbatch have third billing on this? Where the hell was he in this movie? I would've loved to see more of him. Seems to me when you're a Senator and your brother is a crime lord, there's an interesting story to be told there. I wish we could've seen it.
Depp pulls off an impressive role we typically never see outside of his usual, grandiose characters. Edgerton's balancing act of innocence and control is fantastic. There's great acting all around in this film. The characters are marvelously fleshed out. The script just lacks a little of that punch other flashy "based on a true story" films have. Nevertheless, Black Mass is a worthwhile addition to the theater lineup and a trumpeting herald to usher in the oncoming Fall/Winter AAA films.