In “Black Mass,” the crime movie that’s taking the country (especially Boston) by storm, Johnny Depp carries off what makes him one of the most talented actors of our time. He delivers a realistic, multi-layered performance that is both vile and humane. Depp achieves this by peeling away the onion, frame by frame, in his chilling portrayal of Whitey Bulger. “Black Mass” is a richly textured, well- played symphony of events, based on a book by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill, formerly of The Boston Globe. The movie weaves jailhouse interviews in with the Whitey’s world of corruption and violence to make a shimmering tapestry of a film.
Unfortunately, recent remarks by Depp about Whitey are generating some negative headlines. After a preview in Boston, Depp told a reporter, “There’s a kind heart in there. There’s a cold heart in there. There’s a man who loves. There’s a man who cries. There’s a lot to the man.”
On “Nightside,” WBZ’s talk radio program, Kevin Weeks, Whitey’s right hand man, said he had seen Whitey be nice. Of course, many people are infuriated with these description of the violent and cold-blooded sociopath. But for a film to be compelling, the lead characters must be developed and multi-dimensional. And the director and the lead actor know this. So while Whitey is pure criminal, Depp brings out a few qualities that aren’t so bad. Whitey is:
Kind to old ladies When he crosses paths with an elderly neighbor, he chats pleasantly and directs his fellow mobsters to carry her groceries. In another early scene, he plays cards with Ma Bulger in the kitchen.
Well-groomed His hair is never out of place and his shirts are always tucked in.
Caring Upon returning home for the evening, he bolts upstairs to see his son, Douglas, who’s fast asleep. When the boy gets a fever the next day, Whitey is worried sick.
Philosophical He tells a victim thoughtfully, “Everyone has a choice. You just happened to make the wrong &%$ one.”
Sensitive The death of his mother throws him for a loop and he’s never the same.
Didactic When Douglas gets reprimanded at school for punching a classmate, he gives him some fatherly advice: “It’s not what you do. It’s when and where you do it.” In other words, if nobody sees it, it didn’t happen.
Funny When an FBI supervisor uses an incriminating phrase, he tells him, “’Just sayin’ sends people to ‘Alleywood.’ ‘Just saying’ got me into Alcatraz.” Then, unexpectedly, he flashes his gnarly teeth and emits the creepiest, longest laugh I’ve ever heard. The hair on the back of my neck stood up.
’Just sayin’ sends people to ‘Alleywood.’ ‘Just saying’ got me into Alcatraz.”
Sanitary Sitting with fellow mobsters in a bar, his ice blue eyes fixate on hitman, Johnny Martorano (W. Earl Brown) and a bowl of nuts. Whitey is disgusted and reprimands him for putting his “fat, &*%$ fingers in his mouth” and then into a bowl “that’s meant for public consumption.”
Hands down, Depp’s great. But there are other reasons to see “Black Mass.” Especially the female characters. Julianne Nichols, who plays Connolly’s wife, steals every scene she’s in. Juno Temple is adorable and genuine as Deborah Hussey, who is strangled by Whitey in front of her “boyfriend” (and stepfather!) Steve Flemmi (aka “The Rifleman”). Dakota Johnson is heartbreaking as the mother of Whitey’s son. (It’s a shame that Catherine Grieg’s character, played during production by Sienna Miller, was cut. Another woman would have added more color and balance.) Overall, the accents are good, considering that the Boston dialect is so difficult to master. Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays Whitey’s brother Billy, tries his best. (The only people who can do a Boston accent are people from Boston). Joel Edgerton, who portrays Connolly, is convincing as a conniving, lying opportunist who isn’t too bright. Jesse Plemons, who plays Whitey’s right-hand man, Kevin Weeks, literally gives a knockout performance. (The movie is gory, but the violence is not gratuitous.) Corey Stoll plays Fred Wyshak, a new FBI prosecutor in town who smells a rat. He’s a serious, no nonsense guy who restores our faith in the criminal justice system. (Mr. Stoll had me at refusing Red Sox tickets. He tells the corrupt Connolly, “Just bring me cases. It’s all the help I need.”)
Exceptional acting, superior direction, a compelling story and brilliant cinematography make “Black Mass” a “Must See.” The soundtrack is retro cool, and perfectly sets the mood for each scene. But the movie belongs to Johnny Depp. Despite sprinklings of humanity here and there, the actor’s Whitey Bulger is a never ending horror show.
Note: This article appeared originally in The Huffington Post.