A shifty-looking guy in '70s duds sits in a parked car, window open, reading a paper. A motorcyclist pulls up beside him and, before Shifty can even fully finish his inevitable "What the fuck..?" shoots him in the head. This is the scene from Scott Cooper's "Black Mass" where the immense familiarity of the entire endeavor may strike you, but not because we've all seen played out several times before — here you might notice what is missing, what is, for want of a better word, wrong. The generally strong score (by "Mad Max: Fury Road" composer Tom Holkenborg aka Junkie XL) lies over the quick cutaway moment, heavy and foreboding and ominous. Somehow, it just feels like that should have been cut to, I don't know, the Rolling Stones or a swingy number by Dean Martin maybe? Cooper's take on the gangster picture is so deeply beholden to great films that have gone before that you might find yourself mentally "correcting" it like a term paper, as though "Black Mass" were an exam to see how closely he has studied the greats. To be fair, it passes the test with flying colors — Cooper has revised hard, and at times skates so close to the kind of dizzy dark pleasure that Martin Scorsese's gangster movies exude that it almost gets there. That "almost," however might be the film's biggest problem.
It's the same "almost" that bedevils the most chatter-worthy and probably most divisive aspect of the film: for a long time "Black Mass" is where we've been putting all our hopes that we get Johnny Depp back from his extended stay in the lucrative-but-soulless wilderness of Tim Burton collaborations and increasingly exhausting-looking 'Pirates' go-rounds. And it almost is the comeback performance we've all wanted so much — it's certainly the most interesting thing he's done in ages, and he never feels less than committed — and no doubt there will be those who'll champion it as such. But amid a cast of ringers, beautifully costumed and caressingly photographed who get to act with their real faces, Depp is encased in a helmet of makeup and prosthetics that make him look ghostly, corpse-like, lizard-y and sometimes like a literal incarnation of the devil, specifically when he menaces Julianne Nicholson in one creepy sequence. It makes him fascinating to look at, but maybe for the wrong reasons — ones that have nothing to do with the quality of his performance or the charisma he exudes, and more to do with trying to locate the single element that is almost there, but doesn't quite gel. Is it the too-light contacts with their unchanging beady pupils? Is it his odd, never totally convincing hairline? Is it the fact that his forehead seems peculiarly immobile? This feels like a rare case where a live action performance falls into what animators call the "uncanny valley" — the narrow but unbridgeable gap that exists between something realistic and something real.
This is a shame because Depp, while he doesn't resemble Bulger at all, would probably have had the part down pat without all those hours in the makeup chair. He is good at the sneery put-downs and don't-fuck-with-me hardboiled gangster speak. He's good at play-acting at being someone's pal when he's about to brutally kill them (a well the film returns to at least once too often, however). And he's especially good when Bulger's brief flashes of warmth, as when he spots an old lady he knew as a kid on the street, or when he spends time giving absurdly amoral life lessons to his moppet son, make us understand the seductive power and charm of this drug-peddling, IRA-supporting, racketeering murderer.
And he has such a cast to play off. Joel Edgerton is typically solid as John Connolly, Bulger's childhood friend turned FBI agent turned massively corrupt "enabler" for Bulger's rise to crime lord status. Benedict Cumberbatch is appropriately senatorial as Bulger's influential politician brother, and if they never look entirely fraternal, it's hard to say if that's a performance issue or because Cumberbatch is a human man and Depp is a ghoul. Beyond that, in smaller roles, there are some really terrific little performances: Juno Temple has one scene, pretty much, but kills it; Jesse Plemons is so good as Bulger's henchman that it's a shame he gets so little to do after opening the film so strongly, and Corey Stoll, his gleaming, hairless pate making him the literal embodiment of the "clean" cop, is a jolt of realism as the boss who sees Connolly for what he is, after all his years of pulling the wool over his superiors' eyes (including a sclerotic Kevin Bacon and a mustachioed Adam Scott). As for the women (inevitably seen in kitchens), Dakota Johnson again makes something of nothing as Bulger's baby mama, while Julianne Nicholson, playing Connolly's wife, should probably just have had the adjectival phrase "criminally underused" surgically grafted onto her name by now.
The film also looks good, not just because it is so frequently focused on telegenic people. "Spotlight" DP Masanobu Takayanagi turns in similarly impressive work here, this time working with rain-slicked suburban driveways, and elegantly lit '70s and '80s interiors. And he's not the only link to Tom McCarthy's film — "Black Mass" is written by Jez Butterworth and Mark Mallouk from a book co-written by ex-Spotlight team member Dick Lehr, and the Boston Globe's cover story on Bulger is the moment in "Black Mass" when his empire crumbles overnight. But that tale — of the real-life Bulger's rise and fall — is so full of odd, offbeat details and individual twists and turns, it's at best disappointing that the film turns it into such a facsimile of stories already told.
Cooper is just no Marty, no matter how many jazzy montages of cash-counting machines there are or how brutal and elegant the murder scenes (and an early one in a car with Plemons driving is a bloody sight to behold). Cooper's Boston-set gangster film, (his 'Depp-arted' to make the obvious pun) suffers by the inevitable comparison — we miss the depth, the irony, the contradictions and paradoxes that give Scorsese's films such dash, such wit, such life. Instead in "Black Mass" what we see is always what we get. From Connolly, who despite being in the most divided-loyalty position appears to have no internal conflict (it gets comical how disingenuously he asks for the names of those who would inform on Bulger, only for said informant to immediately "disappear") to Bulger's businesses, the scope of which we never understand (how does the wacky Jai Alai scam factor in to his empire? Where does he get the IRA guns from? How does he reconcile dealing drugs to kids with his I Heart Southie persona?). Underneath the glossy surface there's little real insight into what made this man tick — and despite how creepy he looks here, Bulger was a man, not a devil. "Black Mass" is like that troublesome mask of makeup: we're not sure what, if anything, is going on underneath it, and its biggest failing is how close it gets to almost looking like the real thing. [B-]
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