Friday, September 18, 2015

Depp delivers jarring, chilling mob boss portrayal in “Black Mass”

By Steve Crum

By December’s close, let us hope Johnny Depp’s incredibly menacing performance in Black Mass will not be lost among the onslaught of end of the year Oscar nominations. Depp’s superb work here is a major turnaround in a career fallen to hats and Halloween costumes. 

But Depp has been physically made over in other ways. To match the real life felon he portrays, Depp’s hairline is way back, semi-bald, and his teeth are rough hewn. Such is the way James “Whitey” Bulger looked when he committed an alphabet list of crimes in South Boston during the 1970’s and ‘80s.  

Black Mass, directed by Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart), is a true story covering Bulger’s infamous career from Boston’s Irish mob enforcer to his eventual rise to kingpin. Based on Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill’s book of the same name, the screenplay is by Jez Butterworth and Mark Mallouk. The script is particularly noteworthy in its use of a semi-documentary storytelling. From the outset and throughout, various informers are shown being audio taped at FBI headquarters as each tells his own witnessed story of murders and mayhem Bulger committed. Flashback to each particular crime scene. Let me rephrase that to “each graphically violent crime scene.” There are brutal punches thrown in Black Mass, along with stranglings, shootings, and stabbings. Hey, it’s mob business as usual, except this time it’s Depp’s Whitey who is the homicidal epicenter. He is a sociopath whose paranoia and mistrust prove deadly even to long time friends. 

Even when Whitey becomes boss of essentially a death squad, he seems to enjoy literally taking hit man duties into his own hands. Or trigger finger. Let’s just say that when Depp in on screen, which is often, that is when Black Mass cranks it up emotionally. Whitey is always on edge, quick to react, and forever looking to be offended in some way. In many ways he is reminiscent of Joe Pesci’s psycho killer in Goodfellas

Nearly as great as Depp is Joel Edgerton as John Connolly, Whitey’s childhood pal who has grown up to be an FBI agent stationed in Boston. Connolly strikes a deal with his boss (Kevin Bacon) to have Whitey serve as informant to rid Boston of another mob, the Italian mafia. This serves to eliminate competition, and frees his Winter Hill Gang to run rampant without FBI interference. Call it controlled corruption. 

Dakota Johnson plays Bulger’s live-in girlfriend, Lindsey Cyr. She is also the mother of his son. Like everyone else in Bulger’s life, except his own mother and young son, Cyr is at risk of harm around Whitey. Benedict Cumberbatch is Whitey’s brother, William, a respected Massachusetts State Senator. 

We have seen it hundreds of times in crime dramas on TV and in movies: deals are struck with very bad people to bring down extremely bad people. That sums up the scenario in Black Mass.  The outrageous outcome of actual lawyer-made deals relating to Black Mass is exemplified in the closing tag lines. It is the world in which we live, folks.  

There is a memorable sequence about 2/3 through the movie that proves why Johnny Depp should be Oscar nominated. Whitey is alone with Connolly's wife. I will not spoil it except to identify it as Depp’s thermometer scene. Hands down, you will never forget it. Creepy and stunning. 

GRADE on a scale of A to F: A-