Rarely is an actor so completely miscast in such a pivotal role.
Black Mass, directed by Scott Cooper. Screening throughout New England.
By Paul Dervis
Lets get this out of the way: there are plenty of positives in the film Black Mass. Blue collar Irish Boston is evoked with tangible power. The film floats effectively back and forth between present day downtown and the Southie of the ’70s, presenting a striking vision of urban contrasts. The brazen violence of the city’s underbelly is evoked, along with the blurred dichotomy between “good guy-bad guy.”
But, given that the atmospherics of this well-played out story are so accurate, why does the movie break down? The problem is at the top.
You can blame Johnny Depp.
Rarely is an actor so completely miscast in such a pivotal role. Not since blonde, charming Robert Redford attempted to play the lead in the family version of Bernard Malamud’s Great American Novel, The Natural. Roy Hobbs was a dark, disturbing, and mysterious character; he was a figure who represented the elemental falsehood of the American Dream. Redford came off more like Joe Hardy from Damn Yankees.
Depp, in interviews about the film, has talked about looking for the good in the character of James “Whitey” Bulger. That’s his job. An actor can’t just play one note. He needs to flesh out a character, no matter how heinous. But, come on….he loves his kid. Ok. He worships his mom, fine. He’s nice to old ladies in the neighbourhood. Give me a break! Bulger’s deft cruelty is legendary, and looking at his soft human sides don’t mitigate his fiendishness. Somehow, Depp’s performance attempts to make this soulless murderer slightly sympathetic…and it just doesn’t work.
Added to this miscued interpretation is the performer’s wooden portrayal. It is very reminiscent of early Harrison Ford. Depp was to suggest Whitey’s devilish hard core, that he poses a constant threat of violence. Instead, his portrayal comes across as flat and simple … never giving off the simmering sense of doom that it promises. Those around the crime lord react to Depp as if that omnipresent barbarity is there, but there’s nothing here that grips viewers.
Depp is not alone in his misshapen performance. The second lead character, FBI agent and Bulger childhood pal John Connolly, is played by Joel Edgerton. Edgerton, whom I last saw in the Yuletide debacle Exodus: Gods and Kings, and who directed this summer’s clever thriller The Gift, starts off well enough. He plays a man conflicted. He wants to protect his old pal and remain loyal to his childhood Southie community while at the same doing his job. He believes he can square the circle by enlisting Bulger as an informant. The gangster will help bring down the North End’s Italian Mob; at the same time, the Irish Winter Hill Gang, led by Whitey, will continue to do business. Eventually Connolly is pulled into Whitey’s underworld. And he profits from it. As Connolly becomes more and more immersed in the debauchery, his character transforms into a recognizable ‘wise-guy’, talking to his peers at work (not to mention his boss) in that patented whispery way Hollywood has consistently used to convey the charisma of mobsters…speak softly and carry a big gun. It becomes unintentionally comical.
That said, the rest of the supporting cast does well, generating an almost ‘noir’ like quality. Jesse Plemons is wonderful as Kevin Weeks, Bulger’s punch drunk muscle. Kevin Bacon, as Agent McGuire, delivers the kind of finely tuned performance we have come to expect from this talented actor. And Boston performer Lonnie Farmer, cast as the present day interrogator — a sizable role for a local actor — is relentless in his hunt for the facts. Another regional talent, Mary Klug, plays the Bulger matriarch with honesty and truth.
Director Scott Cooper, who replaced the movie’s original director, Barry Levinson, keeps the taut story moving along with a fine pace and a relish for cruel twists.
It’s a shame that Depp was not up to the task.
Paul Dervis has been teaching drama in Canada at Algonquin College as well as the theatre conservatory Ottawa School of Speech & Drama for the past 15 years. Previously he ran theatre companies in Boston, New York, and Montreal. He has directed over 150 stage productions, receiving two dozen awards for his work. Paul has also directed six films, the most recent being 2011’s The Righteous Tithe.