If you haven’t been keeping track of him in the tabloids, you may by now have completely forgotten what Johnny Depp actually looks like, so seldom does he appear on screen without a generous application of prosthetics (the answer is sort of like KD Lang having a Toad of Toad Hall fashion phase). In Black Mass he has once again had all his Johnny Deppness covered up, but from beneath it he gives his most subtle performance in years. It’s a reminder that Depp is every bit as arresting an actor with the volume and theatrics turned down.
Depp is Whitey Bulger, a real-life Boston gangster who in the 1970s was persuaded to act as an FBI informant in exchange for the bureau turning a blind eye to his (many) illegal endeavours. He eventually went on the run and sat for some time at number two on the FBI’s most wanted list. With head stripped almost bald, teeth greyed and set at lurching angles and eyes turned an icy blue, Depp is an unsettling presence. Yet it’s the way he plays Bulger then makes him monstrous, rarely raising his voice much above a whisper and slithering around those he’s trying to intimidate. He rarely unleashes violence but he always threatens it. He’s matched at every step by Zero Dark Thirty actor Joel Edgerton, as the childhood friend turned FBI agent who brings Bulger in and becomes seduced by his cunning. In fact, there’s no weak link a cast that also includes Sherlock’s Benedict Cumberbatch, Dakota Johnson (The Social Network) and Corey Stoll (Midnight In Paris).
Under the direction of Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart) the film has a stylish chill and a pervading sense of threat. There are fantastic, breathholding scenes, like the casual murder of a blabbermouth and a dinner party that constantly looks like it might become a bloodbath, yet there is a lack of purpose to it as a whole. We’re reminded that Bulger was one of the most notorious criminals of the 20th century, but the case isn’t convincingly made for why. The film is about Bulger but it doesn’t have its hooks in what Bulger’s about.