There’s a glaring paradox when it comes to actors and film stars. How can we commit our belief in a performance entirely when we know it’s Brad Pitt. We know what Brad Pitt looks like. We’ve seen his other performances. And yet we suspend our appreciation of Brad Pitt as a person and as a performer and we’re willing to accept the same man that was Tyler Durden as Lt. Aldo Raine. It’s this suspension that the minds behind Johnny Depp’s appearance in Black Mass don’t appreciate, the same way that the minds behind Looper didn’t appreciate that we don’t care if Joseph Gordon-Levitt doesn’t look like Bruce Willis. We already know they’re different people because they’re movie stars.
And so Johnny Depp looks more ridiculous in Black Mass than he has in any other film because, unlike other recent films in which Depp has hidden behind make-up and prosthetics, his character is not intended to look ridiculous. But how could he not? We know what Johnny Depp looks like because he’s one of the most famous faces on the planet. An audience may be more willing to not care that Depp doesn’t resemble the notorious Boston gangster James “Whitey” Bulger than accept Depp in painfully executed prosthetics.
Bulger’s appearance is not a small element of Black Mass because every time he’s on screen, which is a lot, we think of Depp rather than Bulger. With his glassy eyes, oily hair and waxy skin, Depp as Bulger is just so bewilderingly odd looking. Somehow, the actor’s presence would have been felt less if he had appeared entirely as himself, although there’s been an increasing trend of camouflage in his work that suggests the actor might not be comfortable in his own skin. Over the past decade, Pirates of the Caribbean, Transendence, Dark Shadows, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Mortdecai, Sweeney Todd and even Rango suggest a hesitance in confidence to convey a character without the aid of elaborate disguise. More maddening are the hints of high-calibre performances that occasionally shine through the paint.
The problem with Bulger’s look (the actual Bulger is not nearly as odd looking as Black Mass would have you believe) may have been somewhat easier to overcome had Black Mass been successful on other counts. But there’s a lethargy to the way director Scott Cooper approaches his telling of Bulger’s story. It’s Boston in the 1970s and Bulger (Depp), a small-time gangster and leader of the Winter Hill Gang, controls almost all over the organised crime within South Boston. An opportunity for Bulger arises when childhood friend turned FBI Agent John Connelly (Joel Edgerton) returns to the city to target Bulger’s rivals, the Angiulo Brothers. Billy Bulger (Benedict Cumberbatch) is also on the scene, although he’s actually not. Rarely has a such a superficially significant character carried such absolute insignificance.
Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas is, and probably should be, the film by which all other films of its ilk are judged. But whereas Scorsese’s film took the story of a relatively insignificant criminal and created interest throgh the wonderful way it presented the world of organised crime, Cooper renders the potentially interesting story of Bulger absolutely monotonous as a consequence of uninspired filmmaking choices. The people, the events and the scenarios in Scorsese’s film were laid out and accessible to the uninitiated. By contrast, it’s never entirely clear who’s doing what to whom and why in Black Mass, and Cooper never give us a compelling reason to care about Bulger or offers insight into why Bulger is more consequential than any other criminal driven by greed and violence. Why is there a film about James Bulger? I’m still not sure.
If Cooper is enthusiastic about his source material then it’s certainly not evident in his film. Black Mass cycles through the long-exhausted array of gangster film banalities. There’s only so many times we can hear that something is “bad for business” without rolling our eyes and thinking on the films that said it better. And then there’s Cooper’s ambiguous intentions. American criminals are not inherently interesting and if Bulger isn’t interesting then perhaps committing him to screen is glorifying his deeds. There’s a degree of tonal confusion in Black Mass that suggests that Cooper wants us to empathise with Bulger, which is absolutely misguided.