Film and drama

Screen Themes: Black Mass and the Strange Choices of Johnny Depp

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Screen Themes returns with a look at the "based on a true story" gangster movie Black Mass and ponders the career choices of one of the best actors of a generation. Entertainment editor John Turnbull reports.

Black Mass (2015) – directed by Scott Cooper

Based on the true story of James "Whitey" Bulger, Black Mass is an old fashioned gangster movie. Set in Boston, Massachusetts, the film gives the international cast a chance to show off their "Southie" accent, which they do with varying degrees of success. Johnny Depp is flawless, as expected, as is Benedict Cumberbatch playing the street kid turned senator Billy Bulger. Somewhat less successful is Aussie export Joel Edgerton, who sounds like he’s about to add the word "mate" to the end of every second sentence.

Johnny Depp is spectacular as Whitey Bulger, almost unrecognisable in heavy makeup. Dripping with self-confidence and prone to fits of violence, the reptilian Bulger takes the notion of loyalty and twists it to his whims, playing lesser men like pawns in a game where only he knows the rules. This is without a doubt the best role that Depp has played in the last ten years and will probably be rewarded with platitudes when awards season comes around.

While Depp is transcendent, Joel Edgerton is workmanlike, imbuing FBI Agent John Connolly with all the charm of a used car salesman. Even when the world is collapsing around him, Edgerton can’t muster an iota of the desperation that drove characters like Jerry Lundergaard in Fargo. Throughout the film, I couldn’t help thinking what an actor like Edward Norton or Liev Schreiber would bring to the role, giving Depp a worthy sparring partner rather than this stuffed suit.

The supporting cast is recognisable, if not spectacular, with Breaking Bad alumnus Jesse Plemons using his porcine features to good effect as Whitey’s right hand goon. Dakota Johnson shows impressive range as the mother of Whitey’s doomed son, Peter Sarsgaard and Kevin Bacon are also there, and Corey Stoll from Ant Man turns up as the apparently important character of crusading District Attorney and disappears without explanation half-an-hour later.

Director Scott Cooper seems a little out of his depth with a film of this scale, which is unsurprising considering this is just his third film after the not-bad Crazy Heart and the hardly-seen Out of the Furnace.

Make no mistake, Black Mass is Johnny Depp’s film. Whenever he in on screen, the movie is absolutely compellin; whenever he isn’t, the movie drags and falls into lazy gangster movie clichés. If you’ve ever seen movies like Goodfellas, Casino or Donnie Brasco, you’re going to know how the movie ends before your choc-top has time to melt.

Verdict: 7/10 — worth seeing for the bravura performance from Johnny Depp.

The Strange Choices of Johnny Depp, of How Green Was My Money

Johnny Depp famously got his start in the original Nightmare on Elm Street movie, where his character of Glen Lantz gets killed in a particularly gruesome fashion, eaten by his bed and regurgitated as a geyser of blood onto the ceiling. Over the next few years, he had a small role in Oliver Stone’s Platoon and starred in Cry-Baby for schlock director John Waters, but his big break came on the small screen as undercover officer Tom Hanson in 21 Jump Street.

After quitting the successful show after four seasons, Depp teamed up with oddball director Tim Burton to make the whimsical Edward Scissorhands. This would lead to an ongoing collaboration between the pair, resulting in films including Ed Wood, Sleepy Hollow and Corpse Bride, and a brief typecasting of Depp as "that weird guy in the Tim Burton films". After making a couple of flops, including The Astronaut’s Wife and The Ninth Gate, and a couple of deliberately artsy films like Dead Man and Before Night Falls, Depp was offered what would become the most lucrative role of his career — Captain Jack Sparrow.

Supposedly based on living luggage Keith Richards, Jack Sparrow was a charming, funny character when used sparingly, as he was in Curse of the Black Pearl (2003). Unfortunately, the suits at Disney saw the mountains of money that the first film made and immediately greenlit a couple of truly awful sequels, 2006’s Dead Man’s Chest and 2007’s At Worlds End. Filmed back to back, these movies mark the point where Johnny Depp may or may not have stopped caring about the artistic value of his work and taken the Michael Caine approach to acting.

He was out-acted and out-sung by Borat in Sweeney Todd, essentially played himself as the Mad Hatter in Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, and starred in one of the most reviled movies of 2010, the derivative and dull The Tourist. After a brief flash of joy from the Fear and Loathing influenced Rango, it was all downhill with a string of flops including Jack & Jill, Dark Shadows and the woeful Lone Ranger, followed by absolute crap like Transcendence, Tusk and Mortdecai, all of which appeared on the ‘worst film’ lists of their respective years. 

And then he made Black Mass, in which he was awesome.

Coming up he’s got a sequel to Alice in Wonderland, yet another Pirates movie, and Kevin Smith’s ‘teen comedy’ Yoga Hosers.

What the hell, Johnny Depp?

Did you enjoy what you just read? Well, John Turnbull's books are now available on Amazon and Kindle. For about the price of a cup of coffee you can take a journey deep into the disturbed psyche behind columns including Screen Themes, Think For Yourself, New Music Through Old Ears and JT on NXT. There’s supernatural thriller, Damnation’s Flame; action/romance, Reaper; black comedy, City Boy; and travel guidebook, Bar Trek: Europe. Check 'em out! You can also follow John on Twitter @blackmagicjohn.

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