Dakota Johnson Goes Beyond Fifty Shades In Black Mass

Photo: David Fisher/REX USA.
Black Mass, which I saw on my first day at the Toronto International Film Festival, is emphatically not a movie about women. Every female character who appears on screen in a major role is victimized in some way by Johnny Depp’s “Whitey” Bulger, save for his mother. And yet three actresses, Dakota Johnson included, give powerful enough performances to make them stand out amid all the testosterone. These actresses, of course, fared better than Sienna Miller, whose role was cut entirely from the movie.

Johnson doesn’t appear in much of Black Mass, but if you think playing the coquettish and naive Anastasia in Fifty Shades of Grey is all Johnson can do, this movie gives you a reason to think otherwise.

Johnson plays Lindsey Cyr, a woman with whom Bulger had a child. Her first hurdle is the Boston accent, which she does a fine job with — better than her lauded costar, Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays Bulger's brother Billy. At first it seems that Johnson’s role will be all sweet smiles and exasperation at Bulger’s gangster ways, but [spoiler] when their child is afflicted with a deadly disease, Johnson turns. She goes from initial panic over her parenting mistakes to teary defiance, telling Bulger she will not let her son stay brain dead, her sweet face displaying bitter determination. She says she will pull the plug on the boy if she has to do so. Bulger does not react well to this. Her final words to him: “Go fuck yourself.” That’s the last we see of her and her fate is unknown. (You can read Cyr’s true story in a 2010 article.)

The audience does find out the fate of Deborah Hussey, played by Juno Temple. Hussey is the stepdaughter and lover (yeah, gross) of Steve Flemmi (Rory Cochrane), Bulger’s right-hand man. Seeing Hussey, a chatty prostitute who was into drugs, as a liability, Bulger murders her, but not before Temple shines in a scene opposite Depp, telling him what went down during her stay in jail, acting like a puppy eager to be told she had done a good job. Though we only have a short time with the character, Temple’s portrayal is so fun to watch, almost charming at times, her death actually meant something.

Then there is Julianne Nicholson, a master of quiet suffering, who plays the wife of John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), the FBI agent who colludes with Bulger. Nicholson has the tedious job of having to play the frustrated wife, but she shares one haunting scene with Depp, remaining stoic as he fondles her face. He's ostensibly checking her temperature, because she said she wasn't feeling well to avoid him, but his hands molest her face, coming just short of strangling her.

I don't want to overstate the role of women Black Mass. The biggest draw here is, of course, Depp. The film is one of Depp’s best performances in years (that’s faint praise, considering), but I didn’t find him as captivating as Bulger as I’d hoped I would. His Whitey makeup has a vampiric effect. Perhaps that’s fair; Bulger was a monster. But, that doesn’t make for compelling viewing. Edgerton’s Connolly is the more interesting character, a morally corrupt man who says he is fighting a good fight, though its unclear at what point he stops believing himself.

Since I arrived at the festival, I also saw 45 Years, written and directed by Andrew Haigh (who helmed the film Weekend and executive produced and directed some of HBO’s Looking). The movie concerns a couple (Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay) in the days leading up to their 45th wedding anniversary party. The life they built together is threatened by revelations of the husband’s life before their marriage. That these revelations unfold slowly make them no less devastating, especially given Rampling’s increasingly grave reactions. I suspect it has an even more extreme resonance for those who are in long-term partnerships.

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