Black Mass review: Johnny Depp and the make-up problem

At some point in the last 10 years, Johnny Depp crossed the Make-Up Event Horizon. The versatile actor has never been afraid of reaching for prosthetics or wigs when conjuring up his characters, going all the way back to Edward Scissorhands in 1990, but the success of Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl seemed to unlock something. Suddenly, nearly all his major roles (Alice in Wonderland, Dark Shadows) became exercises in affectation, while the few that weren’t (The Tourist, Transcendence) slipped quickly from public consciousness.

Now Depp is coming back in Black Mass, and for the first time in several years he’s playing an actual human being: notorious Boston gangster Jimmy “Whitey” Bulger, in what’s being hyped as an Oscar-caliber performance. As I stepped into a recent screening, a number of questions ran through my mind. Would he still be able to pull off a nuanced, dramatic role? Had he lost the knack for naturalistic performances that he once showed in things like Finding Neverland and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? Would I feel for his take on Bulger, and get a deeper understanding of the man?

After countless prosthetics-laden performances that blurred from one to another in a kaleidoscopic swirl, could Johnny Depp make audiences care?

Black Mass, based on the book by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill, tells the story of Bulger’s rise from South Boston thug to crime lord — a move he completed with the help of the FBI in the late 1970s. When the movie opens, Bulger is a small-time crime boss, beloved in his neighborhood, but getting squeezed out by the Italian Mafia that’s taken over the North End. His childhood friend, an FBI agent named John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), gets the idea to align himself with the man he grew up with: Bulger will become an FBI informant, feeding the Bureau information so they can take down the Mafia, and in return, the FBI will look the other way when it comes to Bulger’s own activities.

It’s a dicey proposition for both the FBI and Bulger, but Connolly talks both sides into it, and soon Bulger finds himself knocking out his competitors and spreading his criminal operation across the country. But with Bulger’s growing power comes increased audacity and recklessness, and it soon becomes clear to Connolly’s higher-ups that Bulger may be more dangerous than the people he helped bring down in the first place.

Black Mass promotional still (WARNER BROS.)

Director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart, Out of the Furnace), steers the story with confidence, filling it with beautiful compositions and methodical camera moves. He takes a fair share of stylistic cues from Martin Scorsese, including multiple storytelling points of view that make the film feel like a second cousin to Goodfellas or Casino. Cooper continues to prove himself a remarkable actor’s director, with Edgerton’s performance standing out in particular. His John Connolly is a man who can’t come to grips with who he is or even wants to be, putting on airs of false confidence and bravado to convince his wife, bosses, and colleagues of his sincerity and innocence — constantly spinning plates until the Bulger investigation brings everything crashing down.

But there should be no mistaking the fact that this is Depp’s movie, from start to finish. Bulger is onscreen in nearly every scene, and the actor reveals a savagery and intensity we haven’t seen from him before — at least not like this. The word I keep coming back to is "articulated"; he’s pivoting in new directions and pulling levers I didn’t know he had. It’s a glorious contrast to the cackling madmen caricatures that have become his stock in trade, and it shows there’s an entirely different type of character he can tackle if he wants to.

Black Mass promotional still (WARNER BROS.)

But something keeps the performance from being completely transporting, and it starts with that familiar sticking point: the make-up. Depp wrapped himself in prosthetics to become the balding, blue-eyed Bulger, and at first glance the resemblance is impressive. But in walking, talking action, it’s distracting, nearly alien at times, undercutting the nuance of the performance itself. And despite its many high points and impeccable craftsmanship, I found myself walking away from Black Mass feeling surprisingly empty. Depp’s performances may be remarkable, yes, but that alone isn’t a reason for a movie to exist. There needs to be purpose — it needs to be about something — and Mass doesn’t seem to have much to say beyond what already exists on public record. Depp and Cooper clearly put plenty of work into fully realizing Bulger on screen, but they leave it to the audience to find the broader meaning in his story.

Audiences haven't begun to see what Depp is capable of

That same concept can serve as a throughline for Depp’s entire career. His willingness to transform himself is fearless and brilliant when in service of character, but it’s hard to find any rhyme or reason to his career choices beyond the bizarre inclinations of an eccentric superstar (see: Mortdecai), a public-facing role Depp seems all too happy to play. But if Black Mass reminds us of one thing, it’s that those affectations account for a tiny fraction of his considerable talent and presence. The terrifying steeliness in Bulger’s voice and the way he looms over a soon-to-be victim aren’t the result of something he wears; they’re the work of an actor painstakingly modifying his gait, inflections, vocal cadence, and stance. They’re the truest expression of a performer turning themselves into somebody else from the inside out, and proof that even after all this time, audiences haven’t even begun to see everything that Johnny Depp is capable of.

Black Mass is now playing.

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