The early buzz on the Whitey Bulger biopic “Black Mass” suggested this would be a victorious return to form for Johnny Depp, a once-admired actor who’s become a live-action cartoon character through a string of family films and increasingly zany Tim Burton collaborations.
As someone who grew up enamored with the rebellious, heartstring-tugging performer, I hoped so. But as someone who’s seen “Dark Shadows,” “Tusk,” “Transcendence,” “The Lone Ranger” and “Into the Woods,” I was doubtful. To his credit, Depp does pull back on his quirky antics in this hard-nosed crime drama. But capped in a creepy old-age makeup and surreal blue contact lenses, Depp’s still using costumes as a crutch. He and his Boston squawk never manage to make Bulger more than a caricature of menace.
“Black Mass” centers on the South Boston crime boss’ time as an FBI informant. Through this treacherous alliance, Agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) worked to bring down a rival organized crime syndicate, while Bulger’s Winter Hill Gang grew in power and brazenness, upgrading to murder, drugs and mayhem.
There are several stories that could have been carved out of the incredible true story of a Southie kid turned master criminal. The film could’ve followed Bulger as a tragic figure who sought power the only way he saw possible, thereby following in the tradition of James Cagney’s classics. Or it could’ve focused on Bulger and Connolly’s bromance, built on mutual advancement and the latter’s sense of twisted admiration, like in “American Hustle.” Or “Black Mass” might’ve gone the way of “The Departed,” showcasing a wannabe thug’s rise through the ranks, only to become disillusioned about the boss he once idolized. A major problem with this gangster drama is that it goes buffet-style, picking a bit of each, never allowing the audience a satisfying protagonist to sink our teeth into.
The film opens on Kevin Weeks (Jesse Plemons), a Bulger lackey giving evidence with a grim expression; his voiceover is our introduction to Boston’s crime scene. But before long, Weeks is abandoned in favor of a jaunty Connolly, who sees Whitey and his state senator brother (Benedict Cumberbatch) as the keys to his success. Yet “Black Mass” ditches him too, jumping to Whitey’s domestic dramas with his elderly mother and ailing son. Director Scott Cooper (“Crazy Heart,” “Out of the Furnace”) essentially starts three different movies and then jumbles them together, skipping to various perspectives and barring the audience from connecting to an emotional throughline. When Bulger rages over his losses, or when the noose is closing in on Connolly, it’s difficult to give a damn. And the performances by Depp and Edgerton don’t help.
Traditionally, the American gangster is one part intimidation and one part charm. The audience should fear him, but also understand how he draws others into his clutches. Depp manages neither. He growls through dead-tooth dentures, but never achieves chills. Whether he’s trashing a hospital lounge, strangling a hooker or threatening an FBI agent over a family recipe, there’s an undercurrent of the absurd that keeps Bulger from feeling truly frightening. As for charm, Depp gives us nothing, inhibited in part by makeup that appears to have frozen his forehead. Worse yet, those unholy contact lenses are the new fake baby from “American Sniper”: They’re so unreal-looking that they’re distracting (no wonder the poster depicts him in shades).
Depp’s vaguely cartoonish approach makes him appear as if he’s in a different film from his co-stars, save for Edgerton, who practically tap dances as he dodges accusations at home and work over his dirty dealings. Both actors give portrayals that are slightly goofy, deadening their dramatic impact. So with neither of these could-have-been protagonists grounding the film’s emotional stakes, I looked frantically for another character to cling to so that “Black Mass” wouldn’t become a massive slog. Much hope is offered, as Cooper’s cast is crowded with noteworthy performers.
Plemons is promising as the eager-to-please Weeks, making me lament that he’s not given more to do. Juno Temple is lively and warmly funny as a ditzy streetwalker. Dakota Johnson gives grit as Bulger’s traumatized girlfriend. Julianne Nicholson brings fire and fear as Connolly’s defiant wife. Peter Sarsgaard is skin-crawling as an untrustworthy drug dealer. And once Corey Stoll nonchalantly enters the second act as a no-nonsense prosecutor, the film finally finds some narrative drive and drama. Before this, the plot has all the momentum and eloquence of a tuckered-out 10-year-old delivering a book report: “And then this happened, and then this happened.”
I began to reimagine a Bulger movie in which Sarsgaard’s manic menace or Stoll’s sharp stare were utilized in the lead instead. But sadly none of the spectacular supporting cast can save “Black Mass.”
Cooper seems to assume his narcissistic kingpin is inherently interesting. But Depp doesn’t deliver the kind of iconic gangster who can overshadow the script problems. “Black Mass” brings in so many characters and thin threads that it feels more like a television season condensed into 122 minutes. In this scheme, we’re cheated of character development, robbed of tension, battered with inane details, and hit with an ending so anti-climactic it ought to be a crime. Occasionally the film gives up an intriguing scene or a fun performance, but overall “Black Mass” is a boring mess.
“Black Mass” opens today nationwide.