Warner Bros.’ crime film about notorious Boston gangster Whitey Bulger screened at the Telluride Film Festival and seems poised to be a major Oscar contender.
The makeup and costume particulars of the role no doubt appealed to Depp, who loves to play dress-up on screen, from the outset. As Bulger, Depp resembles Orson Welles as the aged, desiccated version of Charles Foster Kane, only he’s tricked out in black leather and 1970s and ‘80s sunglasses. Behind those glasses, Depp’s icy glare (aided by eerie blue contact lenses) is enough to curdle milk.
Joel Edgerton threatens to go over the caricature line, but never quite does, as the “Southie” neighborhood pal of Bulger’s. He’s an increasingly conflicted F.B.I. agent assigned to get the very guys to whom he owes his loyalty. (Most of the characters in “Black Mass” are real people.) Benedict Cumberbatch oozes quiet authority as Bulger’s brother, the President of the Massachusetts Senate. Kevin Bacon, Adam Scott, Peter Sarsgaard, Rory Cochrane and many more fill out the lucid, engaging screenplay’s collection of hoodlums and their pursuers.
It’s a vicious man’s world in “Black Mass,” but one sign of the film’s relative freshness (considering how many cops-and-mobsters movies we get in a given decade) is the way it saves its most arresting scene for an unexpected private moment. The excellent, undervalued actress Julianne Nicholson plays the strutting F.B.I. agent’s wife. At one point Depp confronts Nicholson in her own bedroom, calling her bluff (she claims to be sick, and doesn’t want to socialize with the thugs downstairs). The encounter gets icky very quickly, though in a subtle, plausible way. We see a new side to Whitey Bulger in this sequence, and Cooper’s enough of a director to realize that if he didn’t linger on Nicholson’s reaction, he’d be making a mistake.
“Black Mass” opens in theaters Sept. 18.