I don’t know what a murderous crime lord is supposed to look like, but it’s not Johnny Depp. Can Depp be delicate? Yes. Frisky? Melancholy? Sure. Likely to enter an outdoor parking lot near the Boston Harbor with a shotgun and fire until two men are very dead? I don’t think so. The makers of Black Mass seem to understand that they’ve got a prettiness problem with Depp. They also want to be careful that in dramatizing the dirty doings of James “Whitey” Bulger they don’t romanticize him. To that end, they’ve given Depp pale skin tight enough that it could flake at the merest expression of much beyond menace. Bulger’s thinned hair has been slicked back into a shell, and his crooked teeth appear to cast shadows on themselves. When he laughs — barely half a hand is required to count the times — you’re staring into a cave. The color has even left his eyes. When the light catches them, they sparkle like fish scales.
Despite recent evidence to the contrary — think junk like Transcendence and Mortdecai — Depp isn’t an “I just sent you a fax” sort of actor. But the movie doesn’t take any chances; it makes Bulger’s monstrosity literal. He looks like a supervillain who never got to finish transitioning to evil. Bulger was apparently a psychopath, but he didn’t look like he was ready to wreak havoc in Avengers 6. But the hair and makeup are smart. They’re used to set apart the bad from both the worst and everyone else. One evening, not far into the movie, Whitey pays a visit to his little old Irish lady of a mother (Mary Klug). They play gin, and his younger brother, Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch), a state senator, is there cooking her dinner. You’re searching the dining room for some sign of resemblance among these three, and there is none. Cumberbatch’s clammy but attentive beauty has nothing to do with the talking corpse at the head of the table. That doesn’t feel accidental. Neither does the conception of Bulger’s two closest henchmen: Stephen Flemmi (Rory Cochrane), who here is rotund and baleful, and Kevin Weeks (Jesse Plemons), who’s got prosthetic-looking skin, big hair, and a dog’s loyalty. They could be in Abbott and Costello Meet the Wolf Man.
The movie focuses on the years Bulger worked as an FBI informant, from the mid-1970s until he fled Boston in the mid-1990s. A slickster agent named John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) seduces him into the role. At the time, the feds wanted to rid the city of the Italian mafia, and Connolly sells his reluctant bosses — one is Charles McGuire, played, inevitably, by Kevin Bacon — on Bulger. A happy (and not entirely accidental) consequence of these consultations, for Bulger, was that the demise of the Italian mob cleared a path for his Winter Hill Gang to dominate not only the vending-machine racket but to run drugs and arms, too. Connolly and another agent, John Morris (David Harbour), reap the most intimate spoils, in money and trips and time with Whitey, but you get the sense that the men are just two prominent for-examples of corruption within the agency. As the years pass, there’s comedy in McGuire’s flipping his lid whenever he wants to bring charges against the Winter Hill guys but realizes he can’t because Bulger’s protected. There’s more in Connolly’s almost adolescent prevaricating about the turpitude of his source.
I have to say, the acting here is much stronger and more soulful than I would have expected, and not only from Depp. He’s played so many of these walking zombies that it’s surprising he’s found yet another way to do it: the daylight bogeyman. He’s not out for sympathy. People blanched after a premiere screening in Boston this week when Depp tried to make what sounded like a case for Bulger’s humanity. And that may be how Depp got through this part, but what’s onscreen is cold-blooded. Flemmi was as brutal as Bulger, but I really like what Cochrane does with his body here. One of the darkest moments involves Bulger strangling to death someone Flemmi claims to care about. When it’s over, Bulger makes Flemmi and Weeks dispose of the body, and Cochrane darkens Flemmi’s demeanor, which was never bright to begin with. There’s a part for Peter Sarsgaard as the sort of jittery, disposable two-bit crook these movies always cough up. Sarsgaard is among the last actors you’d cast in a part that requires him to say “I make my living in the streets.” But he’s so wrong that he’s almost right. Meanwhile, the women here have nothing to do but hang around houses and hospitals. But Dakota Johnson, Juno Temple, and, especially, Julianne Nicholson — as a baby mama, floozie-junkie, and a long-suffering FBI wife, respectively — apply themselves to thankless canned roles of actual people. (Nicholson’s accent works, but like spoken palimpsest; as U.S. attorney Fred Wyshak, Corey Stoll’s suggests a 51st state only he knows about.)
Edgerton’s physicality takes the movie. When he’s strutting and strolling around the office, or virtually floating to heaven as a cluster of agents sit in a conference room listening to a mafioso incriminate himself, or speaking in a treble accent that exists in Boston but that I’ve never heard in a movie because the degree of difficulty is high, it’s like he’s inventing some new kind of machismo. He’s a bull-cock. Who knows where he found that accent (he’s from Australia), but he’s found one of the most entertaining performances I’ve seen all year. And more than anyone else in Black Mass, he’s free to stay on a cloud since the movie’s depiction of Connolly’s employer is nothing short of scathing.
The coolness and detached sense of horror that director Scott Cooper furnishes comes right from the source material, the 2000 book Black Mass: The Irish Mob, the FBI, and a Devil’s Deal, by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill, two former reporters for the Boston Globe. Most of the lighting is sepulchral, and the pacing is funereal. Death is just about everywhere in this version of Boston, which makes it close to almost every version of Boston filmed in the past dozen years. (The Heat’s an exception; it’s also a law-enforcement comedy.) The cinematography, by Masanobu Takayanagi, keeps its head, lurking slowly to and fro. This is a leap forward for Cooper, whose last movie was 2013’s Out of the Furnace, a testosterone-soaked tour de force of working-class phoniness. He’s decided to be a stylist — which is something to be grateful for — but Out of the Furnace was full of bad style.
This time, the declarative script, which has been credited to Jez Butterworth and Mark Mallouk, keeps the film on a moral tether. There’s only so far over the top his shotmaking can go before things turn glamorous, before all of the allusions start rushing in. All the slow motion, tracking moves, and framing and wide and long shots are hauntingly descriptive: In that strangulation sequence, a shot in an apartment hallway with Bulger and his victim in the foreground slowly accommodates, in the background, one out-of-focus henchman, then another. Takayanagi wants you to feel the sin. If you’re going to dance with the devil, the tune had better be a dirge.
It takes real balls to open your gangster movie in the same month that Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas turns 25. But the sense of consequence, of doom in Black Mass rebukes the high voltage and fun of Scorsese’s movie, which is still an achievement of rhythm and tone. The camerawork and editing and framing still zing. The violence still shocks, and time hasn’t diminished the dread, say, of watching Karen Hill experience deep second thoughts about walking into an alley for a free coat — no director has been more attuned to the importance of unnatural cinematic beats for even the possibility of murder. Even when you can anticipate a gun to the skull or a bag over the head, you’re surprised anyway. The movie remains this tremendous living, breathing organism: a fireman who turns out to be a stripper, a jack springing from his box, yeast. It’s a classic but a distastefully besotted one. I could watch it every day of my life, and that’s not not a problem. It’s unassailable as pop art but somewhat indefensible as a love story between a director and organized crime. But the level of stress at which this movie operates has never been topped by any crime opus and becomes its own form of caution.
The movie’s legacy lingers, quietly in some of the visual devices in Black Mass and boastfully, shamefully on something like Narcos, a show about the DEA and the Medellín cartel that began streaming last month on Netflix. Scorsese’s trapeze acts are tough to follow. Very few directors move the way he still can. He swings and pirouettes. Denis Villeneuve, who also has a drug-war movie (Sicario) opening today, pumps iron. Villeneuve’s movie is set on either side of the U.S.-Mexico border and tells the story of an FBI agent (Emily Blunt) who’s been recruited by a beachy government asshole (Josh Brolin, note-perfect) to help bring down a drug lord. On their side is a former prosecutor from Ciudad Juárez (Benicio Del Toro). Naturally, the lady agent drowns in the moral murk while the dudes never lose sight of how the game is played. Looking like a man who has let go of himself as a survival tactic, Del Toro really scares you. He’s got a speech at the end that points to the better movie this could have been. Aside from that performance and Roger Deakins’s cinematography, which is full of desert sizzle and searchlight-generated shadow, I’m not buying this movie; and I’ve seen it twice. Mostly because Villeneuve and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan aren’t selling more than a tautological action movie with the dread and body count of a horror film. A friend and I were just saying about Villeneuve the other day that he really doesn’t care what he’s directing as long as it shows off his abs.
That’s almost true of Baltasar Kormákur, but he also seems capable of yoga or Krav Maga. He’s directed Everest, which also opens today. (People, the gym is crowded this week!) He’s from Iceland, and his Hollywood action thrillers include the enjoyably nasty Contraband and the proudly cynical 2 Guns. Written by William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy, the movie’s based on the 1996 disaster at Mount Everest and was shot in 3-D, and is worth seeing in that format. It puts you dizzyingly close to impossible vistas but also right beside staggering death.
It has a cast that operates at just the right levels of starriness to be credible. Brolin, John Hawkes, Naoko Mori, and Michael Kelly, playing the journalist Jon Krakauer, whose bestseller Into Thin Air was based on this trip, are the civilian climbers. Jason Clarke is the New Zealander Rob Hall, whose company is leading them up the mountain. Sam Worthington and Martin Henderson work with him. Emily Watson runs the base camp; Elizabeth Debicki is by her side, as the camp’s physician. Jake Gyllenhaal is the hotdog leader of a rival expedition group, and he acts with less mustard, relish, and sauerkraut than you’d predict. And on wife duty are Keira Knightley (for Clarke), Down Under, and, in Texas, Robin Wright (for Brolin). Knightley’s character is pregnant. Wright wears some of the most atrocious clothes you’re ever going to see — even for mid-’90s Texas.
The film devotes the first half to preparation for the climb and most of the second to the disaster. Throughout, the filmmakers keep you aware of the elevation and the time of day and how much reaching the summit means for the civilian climbers. Mick Audsley’s editing proves as crucial to your absorption as what the daring cinematographer Salvatore Totino and the stunt and effects teams come up with. The toggling between the base and various points along the way to the summit becomes stressful, then heartbreaking. Macho-ness doesn’t preoccupy Kormákur’s two other American films as much as money and the criminal motivation to acquire and spend it. Motivation starts to matter here, just less crudely and more majestically. Within 30 minutes of everyone meeting each other and sharing their stories, I became fascinated by what could have drawn them up there. Krakauer even asks this, one night before things turn grim, and never receives a truly satisfying answer. Kormákur makes you feel the existential wonder, relentless risk, and spiritual exaltation of the climb. When one character gets a hand on the summit’s peak, he doesn’t want to leave. He’s done something close to impossible, and achieving that might be better than living to tell people you did. But I left feeling a Werner Herzog kind of churlish. Failure always feels inexorable in this movie, and the mystical touches toward the end suggest that Kormákur doesn’t disagree. Nature never loses.