Title: Black Mass
Director: Scott Cooper
Major Players: Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch
Out Of Five: Four
Back in 2003, Johnny Depp first played a role that’s not just stuck to him like super glue but blighted him at the box office. Worse still, it seemed to make him lazy as an actor, as he played all his other parts in exactly the same way. Captain Jack Sparrow from the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise nearly put paid to a career that had been shaping up very nicely thank you.
But, even though there’s another Pirates movie scheduled for 2017, he’s changed course for something much darker. Sparrow is no more, at least for now, because now Depp has entered the world of director Scott Cooper, who has based his reputation on just two films. The first was Jeff Bridges’ Oscar winner, Crazy Heart (2009), followed by the dour Out Of The Furnace (2013) with Christian Bale, Casey Affleck and Woody Harrelson. His mood since that one doesn’t seem to have changed.
Like Out Of The Furnace, we’re on the East coast of the USA, but this time in Boston and the film tells the true story of James “Whitey” Bulger, a notorious Irish-American gangster who turned police informant and exploited the arrangement to his advantage for years. Once his duplicity was revealed, he went on the run, evading capture for 16 years, until he was tracked down in California. But the film concentrates very much on Bulger’s relationship with the police and his younger brother, a high ranking Boston politician.
Bulger got his nickname because of his blonde hair. Not that you hear anybody use it in the film: he loathed it and nobody would have wanted to get on the wrong side of him. Depp’s Bulger has the look of a vampire but without the fangs: dark shadows round his cold, pale blue eyes, so he looks like he never gets any sleep. His hair is slicked back and he has an almost deathly pallor, like he never goes outside if he can help it. Or perhaps it’s a hangover from his time in prison. His looks are sinister enough, but the man is even worse, a real monster. He thinks nothing of either getting somebody to do his dirty work and kill somebody who’s crossed him, or do it himself. And you know when somebody’s in trouble. Because he smiles at them.
That is all bad enough if you’re a man, but there’s something deeply unsettling about his attitude to women. Some of Depp’s best scenes in the film are with women, such as with his girlfriend Lindsey (Dakota Johnson) the mother of his little boy and later with Marianne (Julianne Nicholson), wife of FBI agent, John Connolly (Joel Edgerton). With elderly women, such as his mother, he’s a pussy cat, kind and helpful but with younger ones the threat is never far from the surface and it’s profoundly disturbing.
With its themes of loyalty and brotherhood and the corruption of both, this is a modern gangster movie with nods in the direction of classics of the genre, including The Godfather, and shootings that take place in broad daylight but nobody ever sees anything. It’s a film that takes its time – often too much, affecting any element of suspense in the story – and the all-pervasive gloomy mood is underlined by an equally dour score.
And there’s another alpha male cast, with female roles kept small and to a minimum. Alongside Depp, there’s Benedict Cumberbatch as his politician brother Billy, Edgerton (seen recently in Life) as John Connolly, the FBI agent with whom he cuts a deal, Jesse Plemons (currently also in The Program), Kevin Bacon ……… and more. In reality, it’s Depp’s film, with his extraordinary appearance and skin crawling menace, although there are times when Edgerton’s loud, brash cop very nearly matches him.
Cooper (no relation) doesn’t appear to have another project lined up at the moment but, given his track record, he can afford to take his time. Depp, on the other hand, has at least one more film due for release this year, after which he reprises his Mad Hatter in Alice Through The Looking Glass. And then there’s that other Pirates movie ……….
Black Mass was shown at the London Film Festival on 11 and 12 October. It has another screening on Friday, 16 October and is reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 15 October. The film is released around the UK on 27 November.