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.