Synonymous with eccentric, larger-than-life characters, Johnny Depp has undergone yet another complete transformation as he takes on the role of Irish mob kingpin James “Whitey” Bulger in Scott Cooper’s “Black Mass.” Based on the 2001 novel of the same name, the film tells the true story of Bulger’s alliance with the FBI as they work together to take down North Boston’s Italian Mafia. Taking advantage of his informant status, his relationship with FBI agent and childhood friend John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), as well as his brother’s convenient position as Massachusetts State Senator (Benedict Cumberbatch), Bulger amasses the Winter Hill Gang’s criminal empire through fear and unflinching violence, which leads him to become one of the FBI’s most wanted criminals.
Supported by a solid ensemble including Kevin Bacon, Dakota Johnson and Peter Sarsgaard, Depp’s performance is the undeniable spine of this sombre film. Depp possesses an uncanny resemblance to the real Bulger with his receding hairline, striking blue eyes and mouth full of crooked teeth. His electrifying yet sensitive portrayal of the feared mobster presents audiences with a tortured individual that goes beyond the typical gangster caricature littered across the history of cinema.
While Depp’s riveting performance — one that finally drags him out of a slump of disappointing box-office disasters — will probably earn him a well-earned Oscar nomination, the same, unfortunately, cannot be said for the film as a whole.
Don’t get me wrong; this is not a bad film. Cooper successfully draws the viewer into these characters’ lives and gets us invested in the spirit and community of South Boston. Though he delivers a satisfying emotional arc, the film is oppressed by an unshakeable heaviness reminiscent of his previous film “Out of the Furnace” (starring Christian Bale and Woody Harrelson). While Cooper is granted limited creative license with the film’s adherence to a factual storyline, his structure of “present day” FBI interviews of Bulger’s accomplices interspersed with flashbacks creates a predictable narrative progression redolent of past gangster flicks. The film soon spirals into what seems like a laundry list of gangster movie tropes; even the violence becomes numbing, overused and unsurprising. While thematically accomplished with its exploration of muddled morals and the value of loyalty, the film’s strong cast is its true saving grace; even if the characters feel familiar and rehashed, with most of the female roles relegated to the sidelines.
“Black Mass” opens in theaters nationwide on Sept. 18.
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