Johnny Depp chose a high degree of difficulty in the James "Whitey" Bulger biopic "Black Mass."
Depp’s portrayal of the crime boss appears to be filtered through an impersonation of 1980s Ray Liotta, while buried under a prosthetic forehead that borders on Klingon. The result feels like watching a lost Martin Scorsese film, or at least the trailer for one.
"Black Mass" is a very satisfying piece of entertainment — a gritty showcase for Depp with scores of quality supporting roles. It’s hard to imagine anyone aware of the subject matter feeling like they didn’t get their money’s worth with this film.
But it all feels less like an exploration of Bulger and more like a celebrity costume party — a costume party made up almost entirely of dudes. Depp doesn’t disappear into the character as much as he creates a hyper-real facsimile. He’s a mob boss Captain Jack Sparrow.
As much as that sounds like a criticism, the approach mostly works, because Bulger (or at least his legend) is so much larger than life to begin with. The leader of the Winter Hill Gang thwarted Mafia encroachment by partnering with the FBI, until that law enforcement "alliance" imploded under Bulger’s criminal success in the 1970s and 1980s. His later fugitive status only added to the myth.
Depp does mythical well, and once again crawls into character like it’s a full bodysuit, leaving no room for even a hint of Real Johnny Depp to peek out. It’s the opposite of a Tom Hanks performance, where Hanks always seems to be playing a character through the lens of his own personality. (It would be interesting to see Depp and Hanks appear in a film together: Depp might simply absorb Hanks’ persona like a parasitic host.)
Depp’s similarity to Liotta in appearance and mannerisms is so striking it’s hard to believe it was coincidence. But the homage to the Scorsese "Goodfellas" era is a comfortable one — especially when the 1970s and 1980s rock songs get cranked up on the soundtrack. We’re provided with plenty of signature mob-film moments, including a slow build around an FBI agent’s dinner table that is Joe Pesci-esque in its humor and cruelty.
Scott Cooper directs "Black Mass" with sharpness, often filming outdoors at dusk or dawn. You can feel the chill, whether it’s a light dusting of snow that none of the characters seems dressed for or the sudden fear of a South Boston outsider who realizes he’s in over his head. The director once again assembles a stellar crew, repeating the standout production design (Stefania Cella) and cinematography (Masanobu Takayanagi) that elevated Cooper’s "Out of the Furnace." The cast gives distinct performances in small roles: Jesse Plemons, W. Earl Brown and Peter Sarsgaard all contribute as Bulger underlings possessing varying degrees of loyalty.
Cooper is less successful reining in the story of Bulger, who turns from a sympathetic and layered protagonist in the beginning of the film to a horror movie villain at the end. The result is a distance between audience and character. The camera becomes increasingly fetishizing in these later scenes, offering a stylish angle of Bulger as he commits a savage deed, or lingering on the horrified reaction of one of the witnesses as the musical score soars.
Those witnesses are almost always men. It’s truly eerie how few females there are in this movie, and not just because most who do show up are hookers or suffering housewives. For entire sequences, women don’t seem to exist, as if a virus has wiped them out.
Bulger’s state senator brother William (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a script casualty as well; there’s simply not enough time to explore the dynamic of the politician and the crime lord siblings. You get the feeling that Cumberbatch had the most scenes left on the cutting room floor. Joel Edgerton gets more room to develop as FBI agent John Connolly, but there are few surprises in his journey. Bradley Cooper basically played the same character in "American Hustle" two years ago, but with the added risk of a home perm.
Depp’s giant fake forehead is much less of a distraction in the movie than it is upon first sight in the trailers. The prosthetic moves realistically with the rest of his head, and it ages with Bulger, who adds a graying tooth later in the film. (We hope J.J. Abrams is taking notes for his next "Star Trek" movie or "Star Wars" cantina scene.)
These are nice cosmetic touches in a film that pays attention to detail. "Black Mass" is a solid piece of filmmaking, from subtle beginning to the excessive end.
Review by Peter Hartlaub San Francisco Chronicle