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Venice Review: ‘Black Mass’ Starring Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dakota Johnson, More

Venice Review: 'Black Mass' Starring Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dakota Johnson, More

A shifty-looking guy in ’70s duds sits in a parked car, window open, reading a paper. A motorcyclist pulls up beside him and, before Shifty can even fully finish his inevitable "What the fuck..?" shoots him in the head. This is the scene from Scott Cooper‘s "Black Mass" where the immense familiarity of the entire endeavor may strike you, but not because we’ve all seen played out several times before — here you might notice what is missing, what is, for want of a better word, wrong. The generally strong score (by "Mad Max: Fury Road" composer Tom Holkenborg aka Junkie XL) lies over the quick cutaway moment, heavy and foreboding and ominous. Somehow, it just feels like that should have been cut to, I don’t know, the Rolling Stones or a swingy number by Dean Martin maybe? Cooper’s take on the gangster picture is so deeply beholden to great films that have gone before that you might find yourself mentally "correcting" it like a term paper, as though "Black Mass" were an exam to see how closely he has studied the greats. To be fair, it passes the test with flying colors — Cooper has revised hard, and at times skates so close to the kind of dizzy dark pleasure that Martin Scorsese‘s gangster movies exude that it almost gets there. That "almost," however might be the film’s biggest problem.

It’s the same "almost" that bedevils the most chatter-worthy and probably most divisive aspect of the film: for a long time "Black Mass" is where we’ve been putting all our hopes that we get Johnny Depp back from his extended stay in the lucrative-but-soulless wilderness of Tim Burton collaborations and increasingly exhausting-looking ‘Pirates‘ go-rounds. And it almost is the comeback performance we’ve all wanted so much — it’s certainly the most interesting thing he’s done in ages, and he never feels less than committed — and no doubt there will be those who’ll champion it as such. But amid a cast of ringers, beautifully costumed and caressingly photographed who get to act with their real faces, Depp is encased in a helmet of makeup and prosthetics that make him look ghostly, corpse-like, lizard-y and sometimes like a literal incarnation of the devil, specifically when he menaces Julianne Nicholson in one creepy sequence. It makes him fascinating to look at, but maybe for the wrong reasons — ones that have nothing to do with the quality of his performance or the charisma he exudes, and more to do with trying to locate the single element that is almost there, but doesn’t quite gel. Is it the too-light contacts with their unchanging beady pupils? Is it his odd, never totally convincing hairline? Is it the fact that his forehead seems peculiarly immobile? This feels like a rare case where a live action performance falls into what animators call the "uncanny valley" — the narrow but unbridgeable gap that exists between something realistic and something real.

This is a shame because Depp, while he doesn’t resemble Bulger at all, would probably have had the part down pat without all those hours in the makeup chair. He is good at the sneery put-downs and don’t-fuck-with-me hardboiled gangster speak. He’s good at play-acting at being someone’s pal when he’s about to brutally kill them (a well the film returns to at least once too often, however). And he’s especially good when Bulger’s brief flashes of warmth, as when he spots an old lady he knew as a kid on the street, or when he spends time giving absurdly amoral life lessons to his moppet son, make us understand the seductive power and charm of this drug-peddling, IRA-supporting, racketeering murderer.

And he has such a cast to play off. Joel Edgerton is typically solid as John Connolly, Bulger’s childhood friend turned FBI agent turned massively corrupt "enabler" for Bulger’s rise to crime lord status. Benedict Cumberbatch is appropriately senatorial as Bulger’s influential politician brother, and if they never look entirely fraternal, it’s hard to say if that’s a performance issue or because Cumberbatch is a human man and Depp is a ghoul. Beyond that, in smaller roles, there are some really terrific little performances: Juno Temple has one scene, pretty much, but kills it; Jesse Plemons is so good as Bulger’s henchman that it’s a shame he gets so little to do after opening the film so strongly, and Corey Stoll, his gleaming, hairless pate making him the literal embodiment of the "clean" cop, is a jolt of realism as the boss who sees Connolly for what he is, after all his years of pulling the wool over his superiors’ eyes (including a sclerotic Kevin Bacon and a mustachioed Adam Scott). As for the women (inevitably seen in kitchens), Dakota Johnson again makes something of nothing as Bulger’s baby mama, while Julianne Nicholson, playing Connolly’s wife, should probably just have had the adjectival phrase "criminally underused" surgically grafted onto her name by now.

The film also looks good, not just because it is so frequently focused on telegenic people. "Spotlight" DP Masanobu Takayanagi turns in similarly impressive work here, this time working with rain-slicked suburban driveways, and elegantly lit ’70s and ’80s interiors. And he’s not the only link to Tom McCarthy‘s film — "Black Mass" is written by Jez Butterworth and Mark Mallouk from a book co-written by ex-Spotlight team member Dick Lehr, and the Boston Globe’s cover story on Bulger is the moment in "Black Mass" when his empire crumbles overnight. But that tale — of the real-life Bulger’s rise and fall — is so full of odd, offbeat details and individual twists and turns, it’s at best disappointing that the film turns it into such a facsimile of stories already told.

Cooper is just no Marty, no matter how many jazzy montages of cash-counting machines there are or how brutal and elegant the murder scenes (and an early one in a car with Plemons driving is a bloody sight to behold). Cooper’s Boston-set gangster film, (his ‘Depp-arted’ to make the obvious pun) suffers by the inevitable comparison — we miss the depth, the irony, the contradictions and paradoxes that give Scorsese’s films such dash, such wit, such life. Instead in "Black Mass" what we see is always what we get. From Connolly, who despite being in the most divided-loyalty position appears to have no internal conflict (it gets comical how disingenuously he asks for the names of those who would inform on Bulger, only for said informant to immediately "disappear") to Bulger’s businesses, the scope of which we never understand (how does the wacky Jai Alai scam factor in to his empire? Where does he get the IRA guns from? How does he reconcile dealing drugs to kids with his I Heart Southie persona?). Underneath the glossy surface there’s little real insight into what made this man tick — and despite how creepy he looks here, Bulger was a man, not a devil. "Black Mass" is like that troublesome mask of makeup: we’re not sure what, if anything, is going on underneath it, and its biggest failing is how close it gets to almost looking like the real thing. [B-]

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The Realist

Good review, I particularly liked the line about Julianne Nicholson.

Mary Martina

Looks great…and not really a fan of any of the stars.

Alex Troupis

This is a horrible review and shows that you do not understand two things. One its a movie things like a persons features are suppose to be more pronounced. And second its a movie, its about acting. Give me a break your other reviews are horrible as well. Sorry but your reviews are rancid.


I know you are not supposed to judge performances based on trailers but the first trailer for Black Mass the dinner scene were Whitey Bulger asks someone about a family recipe a secret recipe and the guy tells Whitey Bulger about the recipe and then depp just turns it around about how easy giving a secret recipe is a characteristic flaw and links it to snitching is very intense you can tell Depp is doing different things with his performance in this brief moment the glaring stare and that laugh at the end it just sounds so different to anything Johnny Depp has done before,Marlon Brando had a lot of considerable amounts of make up cotton balls in cheeks i wonder if the godfather was released in this day and age if brando’s make up would be picked apart and used as criticism against his iconic performance every critic is entitled to their opinion but when a critic is picking apart someones performance due to makeup when they are doing something special with a part i think that is just very bad observation especially on Jessica Kiang’s part.


This review is rubbish. All you are doing is critiquing the "makeup" prosthetics situation. This is an antipatied film regardless of your review it will still do well in the theaters!


Haven’t seen it but I get the reviewer completely – Too often for Johnny the makeup and wigs are the character. And all I can think of is how fake the wig looks on his head


@CIRKUSFOLK i agree with you completely every other review is positive and praising Johnny Depp’s performance.

Mikala Moffatt

Queen of the disco! She wore sequin Chanel May 4th


This is the second review of Jessica’s (after Everest) that is full of criticism and the earns a B- review. Wtf?


This is just nitpicking at it,s very worst every other review states that depp is genuinely terrifying in his role but the bloody playlist have a problem with the color of his eye contacts, his forehead being bloody immobile are you kidding me, anyway i remember a few years ago a certain Al Pacino getting an oscar nomination for playing Big Boy caprice so that won’t hurt Depp’s chances of more acclaim for his i think the heavy make up is very effective lizardy,corpse like, devil like, i think these are suitable traits for a feared killer!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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