The movie “Black Mass” received strong reviews (75% at RottenTomatoes.com) and good box office its opening weekend (23.4 million). And its star Johnny Depp garnered some of the best reviews of his career. Oscar pundit Sasha Stone has already pegged him as the frontrunner for Best Actor, and indeed, his performance as Boston gangster James “Whitey” Bulger is exceptional. In fact, it’s one of the most terrifying villains to come down the pike in some time, perhaps the scariest since Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh in 2007’s “No Country for Old Men.” How did Depp create such a stunning sociopath? There are five key elements to his extraordinary accomplishment.
He’s playing a real bad guy
Portraying a real S.O.B. from history can be a blessing or a curse. Capturing a bonafide baddie we’re familiar with can be tricky. Forest Whitaker brought the despot Idi Amin to vivid, sweaty life in “The Last King of Scotland” but Leonardo Di Caprio never quite captured the ‘chip on the shoulder’ bullying of runty J. Edgar Hoover in Clint Eastwood’s bio pic. Here, Depp understands the essence of the power of a hoodlum like Bulger. It’s a take-no-prisoner viciousness as well as a serpentine charm. You don’t get to be powerful in crime, and have the kind of loyalty that Bulger instilled in his people, without a balance of likability and intimidation.
Thus, in every scene, Depp’s Bulger wields his hold over people through either trope, or both, often turning on a dime depending on the situation. When he questions a young prostitute about her interview with the Boston police, he’s gentle and soothing. Bulger wants to make her comfortable so her guard drops and she’s more honest. And when she blithely admits that she talked about him a lot, Bulger keeps his cool even though we know she’s doomed for her insolence. This is the Bulger that everyone knew and Depp nails those traits brilliantly.
It’s a great script
Doing a riveting crime drama on the big screen is difficult when the small one does them so well. It’s especially difficult if you’re telling a true story, and one with a 10-year trajectory like “Black Mass.” But screenwriters Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth expertly condensed the essence of Bulger’s reign of terror, and they make a dozen complex and dangerous characters understandable, and even pitiable. And director Scott Cooper corralled a large cast brilliantly, letting each of them shine, and serve the purpose of the bigger picture. (Arguably, Joel Edgerton’s FBI dupe is the real villain here for making the deal with the devil that allowed Bulger to break the law unchecked for years.)
Depp must have been reminded of what he read when he first was handed “Donnie Brasco.” In this script, he too must have recognized a fascinating story about the mob being told clearly and dramatically. It’s a script that once again gave him the refreshing opportunity to explore a complicated character and ground him in a real world versus so many of the fantastical scripts Depp has chosen of late. As good as Depp is at the roles like “Edward Scissorhands”, he’s even better when he makes the real just as compelling.
Depp plays up the sexy
Bulger may have had bad teeth and a receding hairline, but he wasn’t unattractive. In fact, he was fit, handsome and had a certain physical charisma. Depp wears makeup to suggest Bulger’s flawed looks, but he doesn’t squelch all of his handsomeness. He wears tight clothes that show off a fit body, and there’s a certain James Dean quality to the way he wears T-shirts and jackets with his long-legged jeans. And while he does a strong Boston accent, Depp uses his smooth, whispery tones to insinuate himself and gain trust and loyalty from those in his circle. A villain always sees himself as a hero, and Depp plays Bulger like he truly believes he’s one sexy devil.
He lets actions speak louder than words
Depp is always great at burying himself in his roles, devising unique looks that mask his own, and creating strange voices to support his eccentric creations. Here, Depp loses himself in the role as well, but ultimately, not that much. He’s still recognizable physically and his voice isn’t something out of left field like it was in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” Yet, for all these recognizable Depp tropes, it’s his physical prowess that dominates the performance. In every scene he has in the film, it seems that he is physically threatening or about to be.
His Bulger comes off like a coiled rattlesnake, ready to strike at any moment, yet elegantly holding himself back until driven to the appropriate rage. The Boston crime boss liked to get his hands dirty too and when Depp’s Bulger rage explodes, there is such an overwhelming brutality to it, that it hardly seems like anything we’ve come to expect from the character actor. For a man who’s often played effete, the shocking machismo in this picture is terrifying. When he strangles a victim or empties a shotgun into a stoolie, Depp’s a Mack truck.
Just as frightening is how he assaults in the gentler ways. When he caresses Julianne Nicholson’s cheek trying to win her over but knowing she’s repulsed by him, his touch turns just a little firmer. It’s sexually domination in its way, another weapon in Bulger’s arsenal. He controls every relationship in this film and Depp dominates every scene. Even when he’s staring through his blue contacts at his next prey, you can’t help but think of an unblinking panther readying to strike.
Depp makes Bulger funny as hell
The veteran actor has always been superb at cultivating laughs in films like “Ed Wood” and “Alice in Wonderland”, but here he uses his hilarity to mine terror. Depp makes sure that each droll line and bemused look from his mobster registers as a cocky man enjoying his savage wit and minions jumping through his hoops. Bulger was a smart cookie and a sharp leader laughing at the world and how he had everyone from the town’s political leaders to the FBI wrapped around his pinky finger.
Johnny Depp will very likely figure in the end of the year critics’ balloting for Best Actor. And Stone’s prediction that he’ll net his fourth Oscar nomination seems almost certain. (The film should rack up nods and awards too.) Depp’s portrayal of Bulger may very likely go down in history as one of cinema’s greatest thugs, a villain for the ages. It’s an extraordinary accomplishment from an actor who so often is just that.