Johnny Depp has long been in a creative slump, his career kept afloat only by the goodwill of audiences who remember the early days, before Depp became a makeup-caked caricature starring almost exclusively in the productions of Tim Burton and Jerry Bruckheimer. “Black Mass” has been sold to theatergoers as proof of Depp’s continued talent, and that’s not false advertising – Johnny’s back. With the exception of ice blue contact lenses and a set of false teeth, Depp’s performance is refreshingly gimmick-free: as infamous Bostonian gangster James “Whitey” Bulger, he’s menacingly laconic, gaining ever-more power through the manipulation of FBI agent and childhood friend John Connolly (Joel Edgerton).
Although based upon a true story, the plot of “Black Mass” is virtually nonexistent, with no obvious climax to the film. The audience is presented with a series of loosely connected vignettes chronicling particularly brutal events in the characters’ lives, all of which lead to no good. Due to the story’s flimsiness, the film relies heavily upon the performances of its cast and its excellent sense of place to immerse viewers in the cold, decrepit world of south Boston. The streets of Bulger’s kingdom are barren; the homes are rotten and littered with the bric-a-brac of dead relatives.
The cast, however, is king. Depp has been lauded as the main attraction, but his great performance is simply one among many; not one actor fails to be utterly compelling. Edgerton plays Agent Connolly as a boorish oaf, ham-handedly working up the ranks of the FBI – the perfect counterpoint to Bulger’s reptilian cunning. When encountering opposition, he throws tantrums: “Whaddaya mean ‘no can do’? Yes can do!”
Kevin Bacon appears as Connolly's boss, the personification of impotent anger. He rages through each scene as he attempts to connect his crooked subordinate to Bulger’s crimes, strangling himself in red tape. Whitey’s associate Stephen Flemmi is portrayed by Rory Cochrane, who delivers a devastating performance as a man wholly broken by the atrocities he has been party to, while Benedict Cumberbatch shines as Whitey’s straight-laced younger brother, Senator Billy Bulger. Cumberbatch is magnetizing, pure charisma, and he’s sure to become one of the current generation’s most iconic thespians.
Don’t go to “Black Mass” for groundbreaking filmmaking; it’s one of this season’s obligatory period dramas, as served up annually by Hollywood. See the film for its incredible ensemble cast, all of who deliver performances guaranteed to thrill audiences and make the film’s two-hour running time move by faster than Bulger’s own meteoric rise to kingpin status.