Black Mass has a big issue. It’s the celebrated face of lead actor Johnny Depp. The problem comes from Depp’s prolonged gimmick of using makeup as a pathway into his performances for both himself and the sake of audience appeal. His version of real-life Boston mobster James “Whitey” Bulger is ultimately no different from his versions of Captain Jack Sparrow from the Pirates of the Caribbean movies or the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland (and probably its upcoming sequel Alice Through the Looking Glass). All come across as makeup on a famous actor’s face.
Reportedly, Depp stayed in character as Bulger between takes. “By the end of filming I’d spent more time with Whitey Bulger than I’d spent with Johnny,” said co-star Joel Edgerton to “Entertainment Weekly.” While one should appreciate the dedication of the method approach to acting, this kind of reporting is one more bit of hype to a little understood acting style that is too often made mythic. It becomes less about the performance and more about the actor. As Depp tries to disappear into the role, his technique overshadows it.
Depp is also the sum of what has come to be his seeming gimmick: flashy makeup that makes each role he plays a caricature. As Bulger, Depp uses blue contact lenses, a dead browned front tooth and harshly combed back thin, grey hair to look the part. While it works all right for the cartoonish movies of Tim Burton or the Pirates films, it can be problematic for a movie based on a real person who committed horrific acts. As a kind of caricature, it sanitizes the real crimes, including murder, committed by this man.
Black Mass is supposed to be a menacing depiction of a real-life psychopathic crime boss currently serving two life sentences plus five years at a maximum security prison. It was only a few years ago that the FBI finally caught up with Bulger, who had been lying low in California. Agents ambushed him in a Santa Monica apartment parking garage. This was only in 2011, and I remember when the news broke like it was yesterday. Now Hollywood has come with its adaptation and of course a peculiarly romantic account for his cruelty (he lost his only son at a young age and his mother died). This rationalization is practically spelled out before he commits one of his most heinous acts. It’s an odd step in character illustration that is supposed to illicit empathy while also showing what a psycho Bulger was.
Director Scott Cooper does a fine job stitching together an intriguing story of Boston corruption that allowed Bulger to thrive for as long as 20 years before he disappeared, becoming one of the FBI’s most wanted fugitives. Both Bulger’s younger brother, State Senator William Bulger (Benedict Cumberbatch adding one more layer of distraction with an accent that struggles to sound Bostonian) and his old playground mate now FBI agent John Connolly (Edgerton). Despite its two-hour-plus running time, it covers a lot of ground without feeling like a montage or losing its momentum.
Ultimately, it’s just too difficult to forgive the glamorization of Bulger in this movie, a star vehicle that romanticizes a monster. The filmmakers attempts at presenting Bulger as a mean-spirited menace falls out of whack with his presentation as a victim of circumstance. To top it off, the authorities come across as inept until the film’s tidy epilogue (the appearance of a limply mustachioed Adam Scott as an FBI agent suspicious of Connolly’s connection to Bulger feels like an unintended joke). Supporting characters either simmer with bitterness, tremor in fear of Bulger or mindlessly follow Bulger. And then there’s the sentimental bit of pop psychology about his son and mom. Black Mass is ultimately a failure in all of its self-consciousness in making a rather horrific story a bit of Hollywood entertainment, not to mention a self-serious film reaching for awards and accolades I doubt it will snag.
Black Mass runs 122 minutes and is rated R (it’s violent). It opens in wide release this Friday, Sept. 17. All images are courtesy of Warner Bros., who hosted a preview screening for the purpose of this review.