A while ago, there was a handsome actor named Johnny Depp. Known for his unusual quips and odd role selections, no one knew what to think of Depp until a legendary pirate named Captain Jack Sparrow made his first appearance in 2003. A part that should have garnered Depp far more critical applause than it received, it may have derailed Depp’s career. While Depp has found some appreciation with films like Public Enemies, numerous animated endeavors and further Pirates of the Caribbean installments, there’s also no denying the flops that he’s left behind such as The Tourist and the three continuous deadpans that Depp has held a title role in, including The Lone Ranger, Transcendence and Mortdecai, which barely grossed half of its $60 million budget.
Depp has a mind like few in Hollywood, a creative enterprise very much like Tim Burton, one that is not easily discernible and may perhaps never be completely understood. However, with his latest exploits considered, I have wondered if Depp has been typecast as Captain Jack Sparrow for the remainder of his career. Every acting pursuit Depp has accepted since Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides has ended in indifference if not hatred towards Depp and his contribution to yet another film travesty.
And so Black Mass, directed by Out of the Furnace’s Scott Cooper, was shouldered with proving Depp’s relevance in film.
A gangster biopic surrounding Irish-American mobster Whitey Bulger, the head of an underworld syndicate known as the Winter Hill gang, was just what Depp needed.
One of the film’s brightest sunspots is Depp’s commanding screen presence. Depp’s intensity and pristine features produce a dynamic contrast to any previous Depp undertaking, many of which heralded stale comedy as their centerpiece. At no point are we subjected to Depp’s comedic timing. Instead, we fear him. Depp’s Bulger is unpredictable, a controlled fiend waiting for the right tick to let him loose like a dog chasing a wounded bird.
Black Mass offers Depp a pedestal, allowing him to express the width of his talents and to many critics and to myself, impressively so. With a dictator’s hand and no remorse or compromise, Bulger’s sane form of insanity is eye-catching and disturbing all rolled together. A man obsessed with his personal appearance knows how each one of the cogs of the crime machine works and while the inner character of the murdering loon is never dissected, there’s never any doubt that something is going on in his head.
Cooper’s atmospheric tinge, which was paraded in the Pittsburgh-filmed Out of the Furnace, is furthered here. While Cooper’s ability to scar and mutilate is nowhere near the legendary status created by Martin Scorsese, it is still one to garner acceptance. The standard for grit is set and raised on a steady slope during the film’s progression. It is blunt and straightforward both in character and plot, making the characters distinguishable but the plot simple.
The dialogue has its moments of impact but are not as hard-wired as gangster film loyalists will expect. Organized crime is built on delivering a message, whether through one’s words or one’s actions. This is the most basic component of any crime novel, but Cooper’s writers invoke only so much of the theme and harshness film critics expect. The brotherhood, belonging and unquestioning loyalty that one would expect is coaxed to the surface but any further travel into the muck of the unknown is left for another film, something I shouldn’t have to wait for.
This is where I feel like Black Mass lost some of its identity. I longed for the unfiltered brutality and to feel the hairs on the back of my neck creep up, but I cannot help but point out that Black Mass feels contrived. Depp as Bulger is an intimidating face to put on Black Mass and yet for a R-rating, Black Mass’ chaos is caged for most of the run time. Dare I say, Depp’s star may have been dimmed by the writers’ inability to manifest the detestable. The quick turnarounds in tonal shifts that many infamous gangster films utilize are not a central revolution of Cooper’s work. Depp’s character is unpredictable, but the screenplay dismisses some of Bulger’s character by its staunch disagreement to let the story flow naturally. Joel Edgerton and Benedict Cumberbatch feel like wasted entities, leaving Depp to shoulder a film yet again and we as the audience are left with our fingers crossed hoping the result is different. What did Einstein say again?
Thankfully, and contrary to past experience, Depp manages the task but I can’t stop believing Black Mass was meant to be a mound of cancerous carnage that horrified rather than a film that made us smile and confirm that Depp is alive and possibly over his ailment of Can’t-make-a-film-itis. I would have smiled had the film been grotesque, as it should have been, rather than the polished and clearly altered story we’re given here. Instead, I was left shrugging. Cooper’s artwork does not feature crisp dialogue nor does it do justice to its supporting cast but Depp’s main role grants the film some forgiveness.
Once again, if you’re new to my blog, I’ve always ranked movies on a scale of 0-100 (I don’t know why, I just always have). Here’s the grading scale.
80-89 It was a pretty good movie and definitely one worth seeing, but it doesn’t quite scratch my top ten percentile. (The Cable Guy, The Cabin in the Woods, Tears of the Sun, Edge of Tomorrow, The Amazing Spider-Man 2)
50-59 This movie isn’t intolerable but it’s not blowing my mind either. I’m trying really hard to get some sort of enjoyment out of this. (Hercules, The Sentinel, Mad Max: Fury Road, Blitz, The Punisher)
40-49 This movie is just mediocre. It’s not doing anything other than the bare minimal, so morbidly boring that sometimes I’m actually angry I watched this. (The Lost Boys, Zombeavers, Crank, Erased, I, Frankenstein)
30-39 Definitely worse than mediocre, the 30′s ironically define the 1930′s, full of depression, lack of accomplishments, poverty and just so dumb. (Centurion, Planet of the Apes, Stonados, Redemption, Pride and Prejudice)
20-29 What did I just watch? Cliches, stupidity, nothingness, did I mention stupidity? Just…wow. (The Visit, The Fantastic Four, The Boy Next Door, The Colony, In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale)
0-19 Watching this movie resulted in one or more of the following: seizure, loss of brain cells, falling asleep/unconsciousness, feel you wasted your time/day, accomplished nothing for you, left the movie knowing less about it then you did going into it, constantly asking yourself why you came to see this movie, or near-death experience. In short, staring at a wall was just as entertaining as watching this movie. This movie deserved a sticker or a label that said, “WARNING: EXTREME AMOUNT OF SUCKAGE.” (Cyborg, Outcast, Sabotage, Gallowwalkers, Tucker & Dale vs. Evil)
My score for Black Mass: 70.
Black Mass is not Depp’s greatest exploit nor is it a star in the hall of film noir, but it does serve as a defibrillator to an actor who desperately needed one.