TWO OF A KIND: Depp (right) and Cumberbatch play the Bulger brothers in the Scott Cooper-directed film.
Easily the most appealing thing about Johnny Depp is the vast range and uncanny ability to transform and disappear into a role that he brings to the movies. He can ham it up as Captain Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, carry a lugubrious tune as the vengeful barber in Tim Burton’s macabre Sweeney Todd and whip up a kid-friendly spectacle a la Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. Over time, this imitable actor’s actor has built an enviable body of work that defies categorization. And the roles keep on coming.
You’ll have a hard time recognizing Depp in his latest outing, as James ‘Whitey’ Bulger, one of the most notorious gangsters in the history of the United States, whose fascinating story gets an engrossing cinematic telling in the crime drama Black Mass, from director Scott Cooper. From the spot-on Bostonian accent to the facial padding to the dental ‘work’, Depp’s Bulger is more a case of inhabitation than impersonation.
Set in 1970s Massachusetts, Black Mass chronicles the Machiavellian doings that made Bulger one of the most feared men in America, but where things really get interesting is in the alliance that Bulger forms with the FBI – a ‘business’ partnership that aids the feds in their fight against the Italian mafia while Bulger and his notorious Whitehill gang carry on with their illicit activities (a reign of terror), with the cops looking the other way.
What plays out for audiences is an intense mash-up of gang rivalry, turf war, loan sharking and shoot-em-up violence that turns Boston upside down. And at the centre of all the madness and mayhem is a jolting, utterly convincing performance from Depp who gives Bulger the kind of ruthless edge that makes him dually terrifying and a trenchant character study in action.
Working with an accomplished supporting cast, Cooper also elicits strong, appealing work from the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch (as Jimmy’s politically ambitious younger brother Billy) and Kevin Bacon and Joel Edgerton as FBI bigwigs navigating the dangerously slippery slope between right and wrong, personal ambition and public duty. Peter Sarsgaard and Dakota Johnson (Fifty Shades of Grey) also make their presence felt in short scenes.
While Black Mass leaves us with a lot of unanswered questions (particularly concerning Jimmy’s background that led to a life of such unspeakable criminality), it does a fine job exploring themes of corruption, law and order and the calamitous chasm that so often separates the two. Tyrone’s Verdict: B+