This was supposed to be Johnny Depp's big comeback moment, the return of the prodigal son of cinema. After a decade-plus flop in his career—soiled by middle-of-the-road Tim Burton films and an unnecessarily excessive Pirates of the Caribbean franchise—Black Mass set itself up to be a possible Oscar-winning landmark in Depp's rollercoaster of a filmography. Except Depp can only be as good as his film allows him to be, and Black Mass proves to be not much of a starting point for him. Black Mass, while wearing the mask of a well-made gangster film (under the stylistic direction of Scott Cooper), fails to break the surface in the same way the gangster greats of the past have. Another Boston-set Irish mob movie by the name of The Departed exists, and it gets the job done so much better. It also, funnily enough, already portrays the fictional version (via Jack Nicholson) of the real-life person Depp plays: James "Whitey" Bulger, one of America's most notorious mobsters.
For those familiar with Whitey, the story is fascinating: As leader of the Winter Hill Gang, the crime lord basically ran the streets of Boston, Mass., in the '70s and '80s, a period during which he killed without consequence. He was responsible for almost every crime in the city during his reign, and yet the authorities wouldn't convict him. His invincibility could be credited to the FBI turning a blind eye, thanks to a deal made between him and his childhood friend John Connolly (played by Joel Edgerton). In this stacked cast, Kevin Bacon and Adam Scott (with a can't-take-him-seriously 'stache) make up some of the other agents, along with Connolly's partner John Morris (David Harbour) who ends up joining the dark side. For decades, Bulger remains a Most Wanted man, until his arrest in 2011.
Depp makes a convincing menace—but he's not necessarily new to this role, either. He'll do a sly smile before shooting his rivals without a flinch. His subordinates—from the doofy Kevin (Jesse Plemons) to the coked-out Brian (Peter Sarsgaard)—are disposable to him. Perhaps because they are so disposable, Black Mass—despite being over two hours long and feeling even longer than that—doesn't let you get to know any of the other characters too well. They are introduced in succession, just to be executed, so the weight of those deaths doesn't take much toll.
However, the interactions with the women in his life are among the most tense scenes of the film. The way he turns so quickly on his wife (Dakota Johnson) when their son falls ill suggests his loyalty only lies with himself, while the hands-on execution of a prostitute (Juno Temple) shows his complete lack of empathy. It's this particular scene where you get the sense that he didn't fall into this lifestyle by an unfortunate turn of events—he's a real bad seed, unlike his goody senator of a brother Billy (played by Benedict Cumberbatch, whose English accent can't seem to stop seeping into his fictional Boston one). The most breath-holding moment, however, is Bulger's scene with Connolly's wife Marianne (Julianne Nicholson), who isn't afraid to show her disapproval for her husband's allegiance. When she is noticeably absent from a holiday dinner at their home—retreating to her bedroom with a transparent "sick" excuse—Bulger takes it upon himself to go check up on her. He knows that she knows he knows she's fibbing, and the silent anticipation of what might happen next is a stand-out in the film.
So is another scene, from the same dinner party: There's a moment shared between Bulger and John Morris, during which Bulger asks for the secret family recipe to Morris' deliciously cooked steaks. Morris doesn't take very much convincing to give it up, leading Bulger to twist the situation into a question of loyalty. If Morris can't even keep a secret family recipe safe, how can he be trusted with Whitey's business? It's a cold-sweat moment held in suspension—you can see Morris' panicked eyes questioning his death at the dinner table—before Depp breaks it with maniacal laughter. But even the best moments from Black Mass are not original to the film. Gangster movie connoisseurs will recognize its similarity to Goodfellas' "Funny how?" scene.
Though Depp's performance isn't bad, it feels over-the-top in an otherwise pretty understated movie. For a movie about a dangerous criminal, the violence is more downplayed than expected. Depp, on the other hand, in his transformation to become Whitey Bulger, sports a dead tooth, icy blue contacts, a receding hairline, and a general graying complexion. It makes him look more vampiric than mobster-like, as if he stepped off another Tim Burton set, whereas everyone else in the film looks more or less like themselves. Then there's the Boston accent—I have no authority to comment on whether he does a good job of it or not, but it proves to be one of the many distracting factors to Depp's caricature-like Whitey. You can never quite shake off the sense that Depp is performing for the camera, and thus Black Mass fails to take you deeper into the psyche of the actual man.
If Black Mass wants to go down the caricature route, then you'd think the rest of the film could benefit from a Tarantino-like brand of hyper-violence, but Depp sticks out like a sore thumb in an otherwise bland crime drama. And when the film isn't distracting, it's mostly just plain boring. Rewatch The Departed instead. Or any of the other Johnny Depp mob movies: Donnie Brasco or Public Enemies—take your pick.