I’m not one of those rabid Johnny Depp fans, but I loved his performances in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” (the first one; in the rest, he became a cartoon), “Chocolat,” “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” and others. He’s had a long career for someone who’s hardly ancient, and if you ask me, most of his films have been awful. His collaborations with Tim Burton (“Sweeney Todd,” “Sleepy Hollow,” “Edward Scissorhands”) were way too over the top for me, and his high-profile box office duds (“The Lone Ranger,” “Dark Shadows,” “The Tourist”) made me wonder if he was losing his talent or just needed a new agent to help him choose better projects.
Now he’s being called the “Comeback Kid” and an Oscar contender for his star turn as Boston gangster Whitey Bulger in “Black Mass.” It’s a solidly commercial film – nothing art house here – that focuses on Bulger’s criminal exploits and cozy relationship with the FBI. Whitey, like many a hardened movie gangster, kills, orders his underlings to kill, but is nice to his mother and brother and helps little old ladies across the street. There’s a lot of blood splattered on car windows, in other words.
What’s different about “Black Mass” (different from the Scorsese movies, for example) is it’s less operatic. Based on a book by two Boston Globe investigative reporters, it tells Bulger’s story in both a dramatic and almost documentary style, which I liked. The violence, while necessary, isn’t the hide-your-eyes kind, and the actors all do great work here. (And this is an actor’s movie; the female parts are window dressing.)
Depp adopts a raspy growl of a voice, as if he’s led a hard life with lots of cigarettes. The makeup that ages him is heavy and distracting, but his icy blue eyes signal his criminality, as well as the dead front tooth that, even on those few occasions when he smiles or laughs, says, “I’ll whack you if you look at me wrong.” He’s completely believable as this guy from start to finish.
I don’t see “Black Mass” as a Best Picture choice – it’s not of that caliber – but I’ll be stunned if Depp is overlooked in the Best Actor category. He’s back for sure.