Review: Black Mass (TIFF 2015)
PLOT: A looks at the brutal reign of Boston mobster Whitey Bulger (Johnny Depp), who ruled South Boston while covertly working as an FBI informant, feeding the bureau information on his competitors and shielding his schemes from prosecution.
REVIEW: BLACK MASS is destined to be seen as one of the great comeback movies of the last couple of years. While Johnny Depp's stardom will always be insured thanks to his lucrative turn in the PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN saga, misfires like THE LONE RANGER and disasters like MORTDECAI have made him lose his luster as a leading man until now. As the diabolical Whitey Bulger, who once came in just under Osama Bin Laden on the FBI's most wanted list, Depp's found one of the great roles of his career and a part that seems sure to land him an Oscar nomination. Quite a turnaround considering how recent MORTDECAI was.
Depp really is great as the charismatic but evil Bulger. Sporting a thinning hairdo, pale blue eyes and rotting teeth, Bulger looks like a nightmarish figure, and Depp plays him as a man truly worthy of being feared. It's quite a convincing turn for someone who frequently tops the most beautiful people list, but to his credit Depp doesn't simply rely on the more obvious props to make Bulger such a well-rounded boogey-man. Soft-spoken as opposed to Jack Nicholson's Bulger-inspired performance in THE DEPARTED, Depp's at his scariest when he's subtle, such as a terrifying sequence (prominently featured in the trailers) where Bulger gets an FBI agent (David Harbour) to reveal his secret steak recipe, but then turns around and accuses him of being an unreliable potential snitch. For lack of a better, less-overused adjective, Depp is chilling.
However, while Depp could have been the whole show in BLACK MASS he gives just one of many solid performances, all beautifully assembled by director Scott Cooper, who lives up to the promise he showed with the underrated OUT OF THE FURNACE. This is probably just as much Joel Edgerton's movie as Johnny Depp's, with John Connolly, the agent who let Bulger run wild, being a much more complicated character. Here, he seems to be operating from a misguided sense of boyhood loyalty to Bulger, who he's quick to point out, defended him from bullies as a kid. Edgerton plays him as somewhat thick-headed and naive, but despite his obvious faults you can't help but identify with him and even at times understand why he'd get so suckered by the charismatic Bulger.
Otherwise, the movie is chalk-full of terrific parts, with Rory Cochrane excellent as Bulger's conflicted second-in-command, and Jesse Plemons disappearing completely into his role as killer Kevin Weeks'. Everyone is great, from Adam Scott and Kevin Bacon as Connolly's FBI collegues, to Corey Stoll as a straight-laced prosecutor, to Peter Saarsgaard in a small but memorable bit as a coked-up killer. Benedict Cumberbatch is also convincing as Bulger's more upstanding brother, but it feels like a minor part, as does Dakota Johnson's bit as the mother of Bulger's ill-fated child.
One thing about BLACK MASS is that it does feel like only part of the story is being told, especially considering the events that took place after the film. However, Cooper's disciplined decision to only focus on Bulger's reign pays off in that it's a focused, tight film without any slow bits. At 122 minutes, the movie races along like a roller-coaster and even if the whole story isn't really told, it still feels complete.
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