Depp gives you chills in ‘Black Mass’
By Bob Bloom
Over his long career, Johnny Depp has portrayed many characters who were bizarre or lived on the fringes of society.
From “Edward Scissorhands,” “Ed Wood,” the Mad Hatter, “Sweeney Todd” to Capt. Jack Sparrow in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” films, Depp has engaged and entertained us with his ability for making odd people seem real.
One role Depp has never tried is an out-and-out monster — until now. In “Black Mass,” he creates a cold and barbaric killer, a psychopath who disdains the rules of civilized society and follows his own code.
The irony is that the character he portrays, James “Whitey” Bulger, is real. Bulger was the infamous Boston gangster who headed the Irish Winter Hill mob and was ferocious and unmerciful in his dealings with everyone who got in his way.
Bulger, who fled Boston in 1994 and was finally captured in Santa Monica, Calif., in 2011, was able to commit mayhem for so many years because he was under the protection of the FBI as an informant for the bureau.
This is the crux of “Black Mass,” as it examines the unholy alliance between Bulger and the agency in the person of John Connolly, a fellow “Southie” who grew up with Bulger and his brother, Billy, then a powerful Massachusetts state senator.
As portrayed by Joel Edgerton, Connolly is an ambitious man who wants to rise quickly in the agency and believes that using Bulger to help the agency rid Boston of its Italian Mafia presence, will help his career.
Connolly turns a blind eye to Bulger’s various activities, which include killings, selling drugs and protection, using the few crumbs the criminal feeds him — as well as reports he doctors — to keep other agents away and gloss over his boyhood friend’s various illicit and deadly activities.
Depp, however, dominates “Black Mass.” His Bulger is a cold-blooded reptile, a human cobra ready to strike at the slightest provocation. His eyes, which director Scott Cooper emphasizes in several close-ups, always are on the alert for betrayal or the slightest sign of weakness.
Behind those steely blue slits is a heartless and brutal creature who kills without compunction or the slightest modicum of guilt.
Depp establishes an aura of danger around Bulger; you never know what to expect from him — whether it is wheedling a “family secret” recipe at a social dinner from one of his FBI handlers or lulling a drug-addicted young prostitute into a false sense of security.
He attacks with a ferocity that leaves you speechless and breathless. The role should garner Depp an Academy Award nomination.
The film also is a black eye for the FBI, which is shown as compliant and incompetent for allowing Connolly to bamboozle them for several years about his handling of Bulger.
If the movie has a drawback, it’s a lack of detail about how Bulger established and grew his criminal empire. It’s as if he sprung from Vito Corleone’s head full grown.
“Black Mass” is a vicious and dark movie that makes you want to shower as soon as you get home to wash the taint of Bulger from your body.
Thanks to Depp’s pitiless performance, though, you can never quite erase him from your mind.
Bloom is a member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association. His reviews appear at ReelBob (reelbob.com) and The Film Yap (filmyap.com). He also reviews Blu-rays and DVDs. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ReelBobBloom. Other reviews by Bloom can be found at Rottentomatoes: www.rottentomatoes.com.
3½ out of 4
(R), graphic and bloody violence, disturbing images, language, drug use, sexual references