Directed by Scott Cooper | Written by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth, based on the book by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill | 122 min.
Let’s talk about Joel Edgerton for a second. He’s proven himself a capable character actor in films like Warrior and The Great Gatsby, and this summer he directed a reasonably impressive domestic thriller called The Gift. But would you expect him to carry a feature where Johnny Depp is the name above the title?
It’s what director Cooper has decided to do with him in Black Mass. Despite the marketing of this Scorcese-esque gangster drama as a Johnny Depp vehicle—based on the real life crime boss James “Whitey” Bulger—it’s Edgerton as John Connolly who gets to do the most heavy lifting. He’s an FBI agent who grew up with Bulger on the streets of South Boston, bringing him in as an informant and later protecting him from prosecution. He’s the plot hub.
A large ensemble of talent—Julianne Nicholson, Kevin Bacon, Adam Scott, Jesse Plemons, Corey Stoll, and especially Peter Sarsgaard—all do good work filling out the greasy corners of this very masculine world where loyalty to your roots is continually reinforced as ethical bedrock.
But Cooper buries the lead: The city’s biggest criminal has a brother who is a senator (essayed by Benedict Cumberbatch) and you only write two or three scenes of them together? That should have been the key relationship, but we don’t really know either of them. Depp is front and centre early on, but fades into the background, a circling storm whose wrath all the other characters take cover from.
And let’s talk about Depp for a second. He’s never less than watchable, but his Bulger just ends up another of his frequent greasepaint disguises—the make-up, hair and contact lenses are all seriously distracting. Less a performance than an alien visitation.