Monday, September 21, 2015

Black Mass (2015)

Film: Black Mass (2015)
Stars: Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Kevin Bacon, Jesse Plemons, Corey Stoll, Peter Sarsgaard, Dakota Johnson, Julianne Nicholson
Director: Scott Cooper
Oscar History: No nominations
Snap Judgment Ranking: 2/5 stars

I remember a time, not that long ago but longer than you'd think, when I would genuinely get excited whenever a new Johnny Depp movie would come out.  In the mid-Aughts, Depp's films were major events, a huge deal where his longtime edgy aura met commercial appeal and suddenly he was both a major Box Office star and the Sexiest Man Alive.  During this time he garnered three Oscar nominations, a huge following, and a fortune that would make Robert Downey Jr. jealous.  However, in the past seven years or so (ever since he put down his barber razors) he's been pretty much anathema onscreen, taking on cartoonish non-human roles (admittedly in a wildly successful turn financially in Alice in Wonderland, less so with things like Mortedecai) and watching his Q-score plummet as no one really wanted to see a new Johnny Depp movie.  In fact, when I heard that Black Mass was garnering strong reviews and Oscar buzz, my first reaction wasn't excitement but instead a gigantic groan that I would have to see a Depp film, an unthinkable reaction ten years ago.  But see the film I did, and let's investigate where my Depp love stands now, shall we?

(Spoilers Ahead) The film follows the rise and fall of Whitey Bulger (Depp), one of the most notorious mob bosses of the past half-century, who ran South Boston with an iron fist and frequently was prone to fits of violence, killing a number of people he suspected of being "rats" and he himself working with the FBI as an informant all-the-while bribing his friend John Connolly (Edgerton) to keep the heat off of Bulger as he ran the city.  The film follows a lot of the traditional mob movie cliches, except here we have the advantage of knowing that a lot of what is happening, particularly the ending (where we find out men who clearly murdered numerous people ended up not serving life sentences) ends up being true and we watch a bit of an indictment of justice as people who probably should have received life without parole ended up being on the streets once again.

The film features a lot of actors of very strong background, as we get not only Depp but recent Oscar nominee Benedict Cumberbatch, rising stars Corey Stoll and Dakota Johnson, and dependable character actors like Kevin Bacon, Julianne Nicholson, and Peter Sarsgaard in key roles.  The cast list, however, is a mixed bag in my opinion.  The reviews are correct to say that Depp is back and this is his best role in years, though is that saying really anything?  Depp's performance is strong, and I love the moments where his penchant for crazy melds with the realistic human being on the screen (this is what made, say, Jack Sparrow so damn appealing-he was a cartoon, but a cartoon that resembled a human being).  Still, though, there's hardly any emoting going on here-we know so little about Bulger's motives, what drives his need for this kind of success?  The script seems to hint at it (perhaps feeling overshadowed by his more professionally successful brother, his lack of success in his personal life), but there's nothing there in Depp's performance.  We never get a sense as to why he's more attuned to the needs of a son he barely sees than his girlfriend, or what makes him become so outrageously violent, and this is a large flaw in the script.  The rest of the cast is also pretty disappointing, to be honest.  Some of the actors are good but have nothing to do (Stoll, Bacon, and Johnson in particular), while others are left with over-the-top work that you kind of just roll your eyes at while watching (Sarsgaard, in his scenery-chewing mode, and Edgerton).  Edgerton in particular has scenes where he's so obviously trying to look guilty while not looking guilty you wonder why the seemingly smart men around him don't clearly know what he's up to; he practically says "who me?" while twirling his hair like an old Looney Tunes episode.  I will admit that after The Gift (which has aged horribly in my mind), Edgerton is becoming one of those actors I realize I don't really like in anything.  About the only actors who get both a meaty role and sink their baskets are Cumberbatch (whom I am usually hot-and-cold with, but who lands his loyal but pragmatic state senator with regal aplomb, even if he occasionally indulges in a bit of scenery-chewing as well) and Nicholson (who nails her neglected wife role and whom I truly wish the film had been about-can someone give this woman more to do in her next movie, as she's more than earned it?).

The script itself unfolds rather interestingly at the beginning, with us starting in the middle of the story.  There's no Whitey Bulger origin scenes-he's already an established family man with a major crime syndicate and we don't get flashes to his childhood, which is refreshing.  However, the script then keeps a walnut shell over him.  We get little indication as to how he was able to demand such loyalty and respect, and why his associates (whom he frequently kills off or destroys their loved ones, particularly in a haunting scene with the air-headed mistress of one of his top assassins) stay with him.  We've become so accustomed to this sort of, well, "mob mentality" but the reality is that Don Corleone or the likes at least demand respect because he provides protection or cash.  Whitey Bulger is portrayed as simply a thug, and while the technical aspects of the film are impressive and occasionally the performances are good, the overacting from key players like Edgerton alongside the unknowable nature of Bulger and his organization cause the film to fail.  This may be the best thing Depp has done in years, but that's only because he's been drowning himself in Razzy Awards.  By any stretch of the imagination this is handsome but listless.

Those are my thoughts on Black Mass-tell me yours?  Do you consider this a return-to-form for Depp?  And what are his Oscar chances?  Share your thoughts in the comments!

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