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Crime Drama Film Review 2015: "Black Mass" (Directed by Scott Cooper, With Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Dakota Johnson)
Among filmgoers and most mainstream critics alike it is common knowledge that our once-revered favorite pirate-for-hire Johnny Depp's career has been hopelessly flat lining for a good decade. Save for a few films - 2009's Michael Mann-helmed John Dillinger crime epic "Public Enemies", 2007's last entertaining Tim Burton macabre, musical team-up "Sweeney Todd" and his co-starring role opposite Penélope Cruz as "the inventor of cocaine" George Jung in 2001's "Blow", the prevailing notion is that Depp has been knowingly laughing and drunkenly stumbling his way to the bank. He's still pole-vaulting over most of his contemporaries at the box office as he clears, on average, $20 million per picture and he appears as ageless as Dorian Gray. Indubitably, the checks have gone to his head and he hasn't felt the need to challenge himself as he's relied on longtime friend and frequent collaborator Burton to uniquely gear starring vehicles for him as unconsciously as Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg make money in their sleep. It has been a sad state of affairs for any admirer of Depp's early work. Films like "What's Eating Gilbert Grape", "Donnie Brasco", the J.M. Barrie biopic "Finding Neverland" and Terry Gilliam's Hunter S. Thomson-inspired psychedelic road odyssey "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" are a true testament to the bewitching capabilities of Depp's range. Fortunately, "Black Mass", a scintillating true crime story that never pulls its punches or squanders a moment is a TKO of a performance for Depp that should make admirers of him jump up and cheer as well as make career-long cynics of his movies instant converts. If this were Depp twenty years ago, it would certainly be considered his breakout role that would etch him in the minds of audiences and commentators alike.
Of course, all great actors can't merely magically make a film work for its entire duration. As jaw-droppingly compelling as Depp's steely magnetism and depraved, tortured Whitey Bulger is - a genuine jolt to the system - it is a credit to the direction of "Crazy Heart" and "Out Of The Furnace" director Scott Cooper and the screenplay by English playwright Jez Butterworth that makes the well-executed genre tropes rise to the occasion. We've heard tracheas crack, see character's eyes pop out of their skulls from rope-strangulation, and heard abdominal organs rupture from the popping whoosh of automatic machine-gun fire in virtually every mob oriented movie to date. But in rare instances, such as in this film when Depp's Whitey creepily and seductively feels the neck glands of FBI agent John Connolly's wife Marianne to see if she's lying about being infirm to avoid eating with him and two other undercover agents, it is a refreshing sight to behold. Depp and his creative team understand that subtlety can go a long way and can be a daring and alternative substitute to the usual bang-bang that seems to crop up tirelessly time and time again. With his seemingly omnipotent stare from his grey-blue eyes (courtesy of contacts) and truly convincing receding hairline to boot, the disappearing act is masterful.
The cast is also compromised of a dependable ensemble of A-listers who, at first glance, would seem an odd fit to come together on a picture of this magnitude. Flanking Depp ably is Joel Edgerton as John Connolly, the FBI suit who shepherds Whitey as an informant to single-handedly take down the Italian mob of South Boston. Edgerton has fast been becoming the go-to every man actor (from across the pond - he's Australian) to portray working class guys who are given a shot at redemption in some form or another. Relatively stout and of medium build, he has the face of a man who has been through hell and back and whose dough-eyes and heavy looking face allow him to appear sympathetic to even the most despicable of causes. Connolly - whose real-life self is serving out a lengthy prison term for essentially acting as Whitey's accomplice - couldn't do much worse than allowing him to get away with murder, racketeering, and extortion all to further his own ends. Edgerton plays this duality well - keeping up appearances in his personal life to convince himself he's doing something righteous and yet conveys many facets of regret as he knows he is walking right into the lion's mouth. Dakota Johnson of "50 Shades of Grey" fame trades in her one-note stiffness for a significantly more fleshed out role as Whitey's put-upon wife. Remember when Kristen Stewart became an instant household laughing stock for her "Twilight" acting? This is Johnson's answer to Stewart's incredible "Clouds of Sils Maria" and she shines in plenty of tough scenes especially when facing the premature death of her son who she accidentally poisoned with Advil. Other standouts include "Parks and Recreation's" Adam Scott as a main FBI agent and a truly remarkable Peter Sarsgaard as a drug-addled and very neurotic goon whom Whitey guns down in a parking lot with a shotgun after he gets wind that he snitched and told the feds "everything" he knows.
The only weak link in the whole cast was, astonishingly, Benedict Cumberbatch who was a very tough sell as Whitey's politically-minded younger brother Billy. As the only other non-American actor second to Edgerton, his Southie accent routinely slipped and proved really distracting. Thankfully, his role, in the scheme of the movie's narrative was minor so it didn't impede too much. Cumberbatch is capable of a lot especially when he's acted against type in films such as "The Fifth Estate" and the family drama "August: Osage County", the latter of which he donned a very passable Oklahoman accent. Lets just chalk this one up to taking some more dialectical coaching lessons.
In sum, new school director Scott Cooper could definitely teach some of his genre mentors like Martin Scorsese, Roman Polanski and Francis Ford Coppola a thing or two. His command of his craft in only his third major deal feature isn't a total reinvention of the crime or thriller genre, but the original sprinkling of his own flourishes nicely dashed throughout count in big and frequently unexpected ways that play to every actor's strengths. You'll likely have not seen a film this unflinchingly grim this year or in recent memory but it shouldn't put you off to watching it. In fact, I'd argue that it's one of the movie's greatest accomplishments.