Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Alternate Best Actor 2015: Johnny Depp in Black Mass

Johnny Depp did not receive an Oscar nomination, despite being nominated for SAG, for portraying James "Whitey" Bulger in Black Mass.

Black Mass, which focuses on Boston mobster Whitey Bulger's time as an FBI informant, is a film I appreciated with my initial viewing, but after hearing a great deal of disdain for the film I  pondered how the film would hold up on re-watch. Well I thought it still worked, it's not a great gangster film, but it's a good one.

Black Mass has perhaps been most noted as a potential return to form for Johnny Depp, though technically speaking some of the features of his frequently derided recent work is here as well. In a surface sense only though as his role is also heavily made up, perhaps too much as I believe they actually toned down his eye color in post production after the first teaser, but then again Bulger was not exactly the most ordinary looking fellow. As also expected is an overt accent, here a grizzled throaty voice that sounds like his vocal chords have been clouded in smoke his entire life, that is only made more distinct by his South Boston accent. Depp is consistent in these choices, the same can be said for those derided performances, but often times those performances feel very much like Depp is having a great laugh at a joke only he understands or finds funny. All of this surface grime feels very fitting to the role of Whitey Bulger, and seems to make sense in this creation of a man who's treated as almost otherworldly by some. Though I would say it takes a bit of time to get use to, he does not disappear instantaneously like say Richard Jenkins in Bone Tomahawk, once you do it's very easy to accept Depp in this role, and all of the immediate creation of Bulger does feel natural to the character.

Now the film begins with Bulger already an established criminal element, a man who has been in and out of prison already, ready to only expand his territory in order to control organized crime in Boston. This film actually very distinctly attempts to not romanticize a single aspect of the criminal life, even a film like Goodfellas which showed the brutality of the life also suggested its allure. This is interesting in that the appearance of Bulger coincides with this idea, and it almost seems to suggest that the clouded view of some towards Bulger seemed to have developed from past association, however someone without that connection is not fooled for a moment. This actually kind of gives Depp free reign to go all out in portraying the evil of Bulger in a particularly blunt fashion. The viciousness of the man is almost always evident as there is an considerable intensity in every breath that Depp takes with this performance. He seems to wear his beatings and murders on his sleeve as Depp brings the needed menace to the role right off in some of the earliest scenes as he goes about beating a man and having another killed for seemingly slight infractions.

The focus of the film though is on how Bulger basically began to thrive through an alliance with the F.B.I due to an agent, and another man from Bulger's neighborhood, John Connolly (Joel Edgerton). The relationship is the key one in the film, to the point that I do feel Edgerton is a co-lead with Depp, as it shows both men active in building a single criminal empire despite it being Connolly's job to stop crime in Boston. Now this relationship between the two is intriguing as Connolly basically believes Bulger to be almost a god of sorts to him, though the devil would be more fitting. Depp is very good in the scenes with Edgerton as he plays it as Bulger does not exactly put on a facade yet does purposefully does nothing to dissuade Connolly out of his delusion. This is actually by revealing a bit of his own delusion instead. Depp brings this considerable assurance in Bulger as he agrees to be an informant, by basically always stating it as not ratting because really just because he says so. At the same time he strings up Connolly all the more, as Depp plays Bulger keeping this command as he controls Connolly with more or less his superior presence.

The film quite clearly paints Bulger as a cancer that only denigrates anything he touches, which could leave this to be a one dimensional portrait of a monster. Now Depp avoids this by a few pivotal scenes where Bulger is interacting with his family or non-criminal individuals from his neighborhood. Depp to do this does not suddenly drop Bulger's normal manner by any means, but does rather naturally reveal just the ability for warmth when Bulger is spending time with his son or his mother. Depp in no way uses these scenes to suggest Bulger as a different man, but within his dark husk leaves just a bit light in there to at least offer some humanity in the man that in no way compromises the rest of performance. Quite the contrary actually in that Depp utilizes those few moments to amplify what comes later. When Bulger loses his son Depp effectively reveals only an even darker man that seems ruled by his most fiendish tendencies, when his mother dies this only becomes even worse. Depp only shows the hollowness grow as he portrays only the greater pleasure and cruelty in the man as he continues past losing anything that brought out the slightest hint of kindness in the man.

Depp presents the cancer that is the man only becomes more malignant through his losses. When he physically threatens Connolly's wife or goes about his murder there is a chilling pleasure that Depp brings in every moment. There's no grandeur to Depp's depiction of it, he leaves no interpretation to it, no chance to be thrilled by it, he makes the acts vile and only horrifying to witness. The film does not technically continue long past this point in terms of Bulger's personal story since it ends when his association with Connolly ends. There is one great moment that remains for Depp, that perhaps alludes to where his performance went in the apparently cut sequences depicting Bulger's life in hiding. That is when he finds the incriminating news story that reveals that Bulger was in fact the rat to the whole world, and Bulger attempts to explain himself. Depp is terrific in the scene as he again attempts to keep Bulger's usual confidence, but it wains in the explanation suggesting a moment of clarity as though he finally understands he was even less than he believed was. This is a strong performance by Depp that proves he's still capable of a compelling performance given the right material or perhaps motivation.


Robert MacFarlane said...

I initially was more enthusiastic about him, but my memory of the film has all but faded. I don't even dislike it, I just barely remember it.

Calvin Law said...

Very happy with a 4.5. He's surprisingly managed to stay with me despite the film waning a tad bit.

Thoughts/rating for Edgerton?

Calvin Law said...

Would've liked to have seen the cut scenes too. Had they been done correctly, he may well have moved up to my top 5. As it stands the performance does feel like it ends on a more premature note than it could've been.

Calvin Law said...

Also: how would you rank Depp's 3 4.5's?

My personal top 5 Depp performances:

1. Edward Scissorhands
2. Pirates of the Carribean
3. Black Mass
4. Ed Wood
5. Sleepy Hollow

Psifonian said...

Even though my personal choice for the role would've been Ray Liotta ten years ago, Depp's performance is fearsome. I never once found the makeup distracting in the moment; it was fuel for a surprisingly fresh turn from an actor I'd long thought had gone to seed.

Robert MacFarlane said...

Apparently his next prestige role will be in a JC Chandor movie, which obviously excites me. Also, I have to admit he was pretty funny as Trump.

Calvin Law said...

Psifonian: your top 10 for Lead Actor/Actress?

RatedRStar said...

Eddie Redmayne thinks his film The Danish Girl has made trans rights mainstream? is he for real?

Robert MacFarlane said...

I hope the women from Tangerine kick his pasty ginger ass.

Anonymous said...

Louis: Aside from Cagney in White Heat, what other performances with 4,5's could go up to a 5?

Alex Marqués said...

Lol at that comment by Redmayne. If anything, it has infuriated trans people.

Anonymous said...

Mya Taylor should have been nominated for Best Supporting Actress for Tangerine. THAT was a great performance.

Anonymous said...

That comment by Redmayne is just ridiculous.

Anonymous said...

Louis: What are your overall thoughts on Laurence Olivier, Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau and Henry Fonda as actors?

RatedRStar said...

Louis: Where was the great disdain from in terms of Black Mass?

I actually kinda like that Johnny Depp has 3 Oscar Nominations lol.

Anonymous said...

RatedRStar: Noticed that you have Arthur Kennedy in the 1952 supporting bonus review spreadsheet. I'm betting that he won't get a 4,5 or a 5.

Anonymous said...

RatedRStar: Oops, forgot that he wasn't there, sorry. But you could put him there.

RatedRStar said...

Anonymous: Its ok lol, I really dont know about ever suggesting Kennedy again, I mean I refuse to believe that an actor who got 5 Oscar Nominations is as useless as Arthur Kennedy has been throughout, I mean even when I watched him in Bright Victory I remember cursing very loudly when the racism plot kicked in because thats when Kennedy went from promising to just below par again.

I did kinda like Kennedy in Champion, when he lashes out at Kirk Douglas "YOU STINK".

Anonymous said...

RatedRStar: I'm expecting Mitchum to act circles around Kennedy in The Lusty Men. But the film is directed by Nicholas Ray, so let's see if he likes the film or not.

Anonymous said...

*Louis likes the film or not

Anonymous said...

RatedRStar: About Kennedy, I agree that he's not a great character actor in the way Claude Rains is, but hey, he won a Tony Award for Death of a Salesman while a better character actor won nothing for that.

Louis Morgan said...


Edgerton - 4.5(Edgerton might actually be the MVP of the film for me as I find he so well realizes the narrow minded fascination Connolly has with Bulger. He makes it seem believable without even initially suggesting anything duplicitous in Connolly, rather presenting him as man who thinks he's really doing good for the old neighborhood. I love his portrait of desperation of a man trying to keep a lie going no matter how hard it becomes. He's particularly in the scene where he tries to get Corey Stoll's character to stop his investigation, as Edgerton reveals such considerable desperation as Connolly tries to keep weaving his lie out of air. He creates the delusion in such convincing way that I thought he managed to make Connolly's final scene, where he tries to be treated as an FBI still, kind of heartbreaking.)

1. Ed Wood
2. Black Mass
3. Edward Scissorhands


Chandor you say? I hope that one doesn't fall through.


Olivier - (One of the greatest actors of all time if you ask me. He deserved to be the name synonymous with great acting giving so many different great performances form his grand Shakespearean work to his smaller scale turns in The Entertainer and Carrie. He also could just be so entertaining like in Sleuth. Hey even when he was doing films he probably had no interest in, he still tried to do something unique, it did not always work, but when it did it was something special such as Marathon Man. He even was also a pretty underrated director as his Richard III, and Henry IV are both great adaptations that are far more daring than many give him credit for.)

Jack Lemmon - (One of the greatest dramatic actors you could ask for. As a comic actor I found him more hit and miss. He could be very funny such as with The Apartment and Mister Roberts though both of those are a nice combination of both comedy and drama. Billy Wilder was correct that there was probably a layer of ham that needed to be cut since there are examples where he went way off the rail, ahem Tribute.)

Walter Matthau - (The better half I feel when it came to the comedic performances. Matthau was an absolute master with the right material. He also could really deliver in dramatic performances as well, and really the only thing I'd say against Matthau is that I never cared too much for his "old man" performances. And really I mean his false old man performances that happened to be Oscar nominated)

Henry Fonda - (He was very much like his friend Jimmy Stewart in that he found a great variation with his work despite not doing accent or giving mannered performances. I won't say his success rate was as high as Stewart's, as I feel Stewart had a more innate charm to fall back on, and there are times were Fonda could be a tad bland. When Fonda was on form he was great, when he wasn't he usually still decent.)