Thursday, September 17, 2015

Depp puts ice water in a movie's veins

Black Mass , a gangster movie played in a very minor key.
Those of us who've been hoping that Johnny Depp would take a break from Pirates of the Caribbean-style clowning have gotten our wish.

In Black Mass, Depp gives one of his strongest performances as Boston gangster James "Whitey" Bulger, the character who inspired Jack Nicholson's Frank Costello in director Martin Scorsese's The Departed.

For better and sometimes for worse, The Departed casts a shadow over Black Mass, so much so that the movie can be seen as a commentary on its 2006 predecessor.

That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it turns Black Mass into a gloom-shrouded reflection on life in South Boston, an area that spawned its share of Irish-American criminals in the 1970s and '80s.

With his hairline made to recede and his teeth made to look rotten, Depp uses his face as a frightening mask. He portrays Bulger as a man who easily could put a forgiving arm around someone who insulted him and then fire a bullet into the guy's head.

In scene-after-scene, Depp gives Bolger -- head of the notorious Winter Hill Gang -- his scary best.

That's not to say that Depp's performance becomes monotonous. Bulger could be respectful of older women in his neighborhood; he doted over a son who died at the age of six; and he remained loyal to his younger brother (played here by Benedict Cumberbatch).

Cumberbatch's Billy Bulger became a state senator and later the president of the University of Massachusetts, a job he ultimately lost because he communicated with Whitey after the gangster had become a fugitive.

Told in chronologically delivered chunks as various of Bulger's henchman rat him out to the feds, the story hinges on an "alliance" between an ambitious FBI agent (Joel Edgerton) and Bulger.

Edgerton's John Connolly protects Bulger from prosecution in return for information that supposedly helps topple Italian mobsters from Boston's North End.

Having been raised in Southie, Connolly believes in the loyalty of the streets, which -- of course -- is the kind of loyalty that lasts until it doesn't. The threat of prison has turned many a "loyalist" into a "rat."

Director Scott Cooper surrounds Depp with a fine supporting cast that includes Kevin Bacon (as an FBI agent who's at odds with Connolly); Peter Sarsgaard (as a low-level, drug-addicted thug); and Rory Cochrane (as another of Bulger's henchmen).

Corey Stoll makes a late-picture appearance as a no-nonsense prosecutor who wants to unravel the law enforcement web that enables Bulger to conduct his business unimpeded.

This isn't the world or the movie in which to look for heavy contributions from women, but Dakota Johnson has a nice, small turn as Lindsey Cyr, the mother of Bulger's child; Juno Temple does stand-out, cameo work as a prostitute; and Julianne Nicholson portrays Connolly's increasingly frustrated wife.

It falls to Nicholson's character to peer into the darkest corner of Bulger's plenty dark soul in a scene that brims with sexual menace.

Cooper (Out of the Furnace) brings grim steadiness to a narrative that ultimately leads to Bulger's disappearance from Boston in December of 1994.

Bulger, who hid from authorities for 16 years, was captured in California in 2011. He's now serving two consecutive life terms plus five years for involvement in 11 murders and for racketeering.

We've seen movies about the Boston criminal milieu before. The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973) still tops my list. And like it or not, The Departed (over-rated in my view) probably defines Boston crime drama for most contemporary audiences.

All of this means that Black Mass can feel shackled to the past. Moreover, Cooper's avoidance of the rise-and-fall energies that drive most gangster movies doesn't always pay off.

Still, Black Mass unfolds to disquieting effect. Much of the credit for that goes to Depp. Like a winter plunge into an icy Charles River, Depp's performance leaves you chilled and unsettled.

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