Johnny Depp is back.
At least that’s what everyone is saying.
In some ways, it’s odd to think of Depp being ‘back’ when he never really went away. Certainly, he remains beloved by people around the globe (especially evidenced in the borderline chaos that erupted when he arrived in Toronto). Although,it’s fair to say that, by filling up his time with Tim Burton films and the Pirates franchise, the actor hasn’t really had a role to sink his teeth into over the past few years.
With Black Mass, that trend has changed dramatically.
Taking place in 1970s Boston, Black Mass tells the true story of James “Whitey” Bulger (Depp), the infamous crime lord. Approached by FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), Bulger is convinced to form an alliance with the agency in order to bring down the Italian mob. As their unholy alliance begins to spiral out of control, Bulger increases in his power, becoming one of the most infamous gangsters in U.S. history.
Deftly directed by relative newcomer Scott Moore, Black Mass is a dark exploration of the nature of evil. Backed by a solid script, he depicts Boston with grainy, bland colours reminiscent of 70s noir thrillers that remind us this is a world with a neutralized sense of morality. Most importantly though, Depp’s performance as Bulger creates a hurricane of chaos in the lives of the other characters, pulling them deeper into his own darkness. However, even though Bulger is clearly a man to be feared, he also maintains a human side that never quite disappears. Even in his darkest moments, Bulger is (mostly) seen as a man of loyalty to his family and friends.
With a performance as strong as Depp’s, one might imagine that supporting players would fade into the background. However, the film is also buoyed by strong performances by Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Jesse Plemons and (even) Dakota Johnson. (Incidentally, Edgerton really takes things up a notch as conflicted Agent Connolly. Called to play a man who is torn between loyalty to Bulger and the law, he attacks the role and (almost) steals a scene or two from Depp.)
Even so, it’s Jimmy’s world–and the rest are caught up in it.
At it’s heart, Mass uses it’s characters to explore the relationship between humanity and evil. For instance, through Bulger, the narrative asks whether he is an example of evil incarnate or merely a broken man who was the victim of a darkened world. Meanwhile, through characters such as Connolly and William Bulger (Benedict Cumberbatch), the film asks whether or not it is possible to associate with darkness without being pulled inside yourself. In Black Mass, there is no clear sense of good or evil as the lines between them begin to blur. This depiction of sinful humanity reminds us that, if we are left to our own devices, redemption needs to come from outside ourselves.
Black Mass is sure to be in the conversation come Oscar season, not only as a film but definitely for Depp’s performance. This is the type of role that reminds us of his incredible talent when given material that suits him.
After all, it’s Depp’s world–and the rest of us are caught up in it.
Starring Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch
d. Scott Moore
Rated R for violence, language
****1/2 (out of 5)