Johnny Depp goes to dark places for Whitey Bulger in ‘Black Mass’

17 Sep 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘Black Mass’ movie review: Johnny Depp both captivating, chilling in gangster drama.

But what would the Bard have done with the tale of James “Whitey” Bulger, and all the supporting players around him? Black Mass opens across Canada and the United States on Friday, loaded with built-in controversy over whether it tells the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, about notorious Boston gangster James (Whitey) Bulger.

The domestic box office roars back to life this weekend as two highly anticipated films, “Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials” and “Black Mass,” launch in U.S. theaters.”I feel like neither of us was there,” Johnson told me at the Toronto International Film Festival. “I was completely slipped away from myself because I’ve not experienced anything like that so it had to come from somewhere else.” In the Scott Cooper-directed film, Depp plays real-life Boston mobster “Whitey” Bulger, who is currently in prison serving a double-life sentence for multiple murders.

There was Whitey himself, at first a minor criminal who became one of the most feared crime bosses in history, ruling his turf for two decades and evading capture for nearly two more. That Bulger really exists — he ruled the Boston underworld as the head of the Irish-American Winter Hill Gang in the ’80s and early ’90s — makes it all the more creepy. Depp obsessively tried to look and sound like Bulger, even though he failed in attempts to actually meet the real-life criminal, who is now jailed for life for his heinous crimes from the 1940s into the 1990s. Fox’s “Maze Runner” sequel will likely end up in first place, pulling in approximately $35 million across 3,790 locations, while Warner Bros.’ “Black Mass” is eyeing a debut of $22 million from roughly 3,188 venues. Scott came by and was like, ‘This man, who has been such a good man to you and you’ve been infinitely better to him and your child, and all of a sudden now he’s turned on you, and he’s making this your fault and making you the monster.

And while Depp’s physical transformation may be an exaggeration on what the actual man looks like, his layered, chilling performance makes it disturbingly real. Yet director Scott Cooper, who burst on the scene with the country-music drama “Crazy Heart” in 2009, doesn’t just want to tell the story of Bulger’s rise and fall. As the actor filmed a bar scene, a pal of Bulger’s sidled up to Depp’s friend Mark Mahoney (who has a minor role in the movie) and was “freaked out” by Depp’s appearance.

If the “Maze Runner” follow-up hits those figures (and some outside analysts think it could climb higher), it represents an improvement on the first film’s $32.5 million opening. Based on the non-fiction book “Black Mass: Whitey Bulger, the FBI and a Devil’s Deal,” the film is also about FBI agent John Connolly (a terrific Joel Edgerton), a childhood friend of Bulger’s who thinks he can leverage his relationship with Bulger and the crime lord’s state senator brother, Billy (a miscast Benedict Cumberbatch), into success for himself. His intricate dance of ambition, survival and denial, even as the walls are closing in, makes him both more relatable and pitiable than the monstrous Bulger. It’s also a solid opening for “Black Mass,” which is relying on reviews for Johnny Depp’s transformative work as gangster James “Whitey” Bulger to bring in crowds. Cooper was floored by Depp’s “emotional and psychological transformation from a man that I know to be kind and sweet and gentle to the man you see on screen who is cunning and chilling and cold.” Depp’s Bulger is “tender with his son, loving with his mother and brother, but a man who’s in the end so far afield from the man I know,” the director says. “I don’t know if I’ve seen a personality transformation like that ever.

The good news is critics think it’s among the actor’s best performances, with the film currently enjoying an 87% “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes. I think that the people behind and in this film are so extraordinarily talented, that they are deserving of all the accolades.” While there may be a lot of cursing, Johnson’s parents Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson won’t be avoiding Black Mass like they did with their daughter’s star-making turn in the sex-filled Fifty Shades of Grey. Bulger’s tentacles even stretch to South Beach (where he gets involved in the backroom deals involving the betting sport of jai-alai) and Northern Ireland (where he shipped arms to be used by the IRA). At some point, you just have to say: ‘This is our telling of our version of these events.’ ” Edgerton found himself conflicted about whether he should visit Connolly in jail to talk to him before the film.

It should snap Depp’s cold streak at the box office — the “Pirates of the Caribbean” star is reeling from a long list of flops such as “Mortdecai,” “Transcendence” and “The Lone Ranger” that have endangered his A-list status. “Black Mass” cost $53 million to make. In real life, the criminal’s presence loomed large in Boston until he went on the lam in 1994, making himself a home on the FBI’s most-wanted list for crimes including racketeering, extortion, money laundering, narcotics distribution and 19 counts of murder. “What people don’t realize or acknowledge is that in Bulger’s gang and business, it’s not ‘Let’s deliver 150 cartons of T-shirts.’ The language was violence and survival within that business was violence,” Depp says. “If you didn’t have that edge, you’d lose your position.

Then he realized Connolly might be difficult to reach anyway. “I guess there was one way to get in!” Edgerton joked about getting convicted of a crime himself. “But I would have had to opt out of the film!” Dakota Johnson: Playing the mother of Whitey Bulger’s only son, she faced off with Depp as Bulger in an astonishingly powerful hospital scene after their child died from illness.” That day was very quiet,” Johnson recalls. “There was a very heavy atmosphere on set. The likely success of “Black Mass” and the second “Maze Runner” comes on the heels of strong debuts last week for “The Perfect Guy” and “The Visit.” “We’re looking at September being pretty strong and certainly bigger than last year,” said Phil Contrino, vice president and chief analyst at BoxOffice.com. And that kind of allowed us to create the scene the way it is, with Scott’s help to guide us.” Julianne Nicholson: She was already familiar with crime stories, having played Detective Morgan Wheeler on Law & Order: Criminal Intent.

Depp arrives at her bedroom door for a conversation charged with menace and sexuality. “I knew that he was coming and I knew that he was going to be touching me,” Nicholson says. “I didn’t know to what degree. The hope is that the limited engagement will raise awareness for the $55 million adventure film, allowing word-of-mouth to build organically, so the studio isn’t overly reliant on scoring a massive opening weekend if it wants to make money. Sony is trying a similar approach with “The Walk,” a 3D look at tightrope walker Philippe Petit’s high wire constitutional between the Twin Towers.

It’s an alliance.” When Jimmy agrees, he rationalizes it thusly: “They protect us, and we do whatever the (expletive) we want.” Which is, basically, what happens, as Connolly’s plan spirals into a catastrophe for the FBI. The actor recalls reading scripts for The Road and The Lovely Bones — dramas both having to do with kids in danger or dead — and as a father, “there was no way. Filmed for $2 million, a relative pittance in studio terms, the film will play in approximately 800 locations, where it is expected to make $2 million to $3 million. Nearly all of the performances are strong, with character actor Stoll turning in another convincing turn and Peter Sarsgaard effectively playing against type as a red-eyed Miami low-life. I would not and could not travel there.” Depp just wants to continue playing the characters who feel right for him at the time, because that worked out all right for him, he figures. “But we can’t forget that I’ve succeeded on 20 years of failures, essentially,” he says.

There was very much a seduction happening there, which was very confusing.” Rory Cochrane: Because he plays Bulger’s right-hand man, a confessed killer named Stephen Flemmi, actor Cochrane delved into the whole story with enthusiasm. “I wish we could do a six-month mini-series and get all this information in,” Cochrane says. “It’s so rich!” For his performance, he says he went “kind of full bore” but was still haunted by the real-life story and the man he was playing. “You do feel a responsibility, not only to the person you are playing but to the community that these people have affected. The goal is to bring out the faith-based crowd that made “War Room” a surprise hit. “Sicario,” a critically acclaimed look at the drug trade, will roll out across six locations in New York and Los Angeles, before having a limited expansion in top markets the following weekend, followed by a wide release opening on October 2. The scene where he comes on to Connolly’s wife is so unnerving that many moviegoers may wish their local theatres had showers installed so they could immediately wash off the ick. With bad teeth and a head of dramatically receding hair, the actor somewhat resembles Jack Nicholson in “The Departed” but deftly avoids caricature as he grows more sinister with every murder.

Without revealing too much, let’s just say that his sinister, is-he-kidding-or-isn’t-he demeanor immediately recalls Joe Pesci in “Goodfellas” in that “I’m funny, how?” scene. The supporting cast also includes Kevin Bacon as a skeptical FBI boss, Peter Sarsgaard as a jittery gang associate, and an excellent Julianne Nicholson as Connolly’s wife. If you haven’t read the detailed news accounts of Bulger’s years on the run and eventual capture, now’s not the time — in other words, see the movie first. And marvel again at how real life really does provide the best material. “Black Mass,” a Warner Bros. release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for “brutal violence, language throughout, some sexual references and brief drug use.” Running time: 122 minutes. What doesn’t: As fascinating as the Bulger story is, there is a certain familiarity to it, as Hollywood has been telling it in some form or fashion for decades.

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