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By: T.T. Stern-Enzi

Johnny Depp in 'Black Mass' - from the 'Black Mass' website

Johnny Depp in ‘Black Mass’ – from the ‘Black Mass’ website

Rating: R, Grade: A

As part of my apparel choices for the Toronto International Film Festival, I decided to bring a peculiar piece of studio swag—the black mustache “Mortdecai” T-shirt I have been quite embarrassed to wear, despite its almost heavenly soft feel and fashionable fit. The shame that comes over me whenever I slip the shirt on is more for Johnny Depp, the star of the bizarre and painfully unfunny movie the shirt reps. It features the latest tic and crutch-filled performance from a performer for whom we’ve tended to have such high expectations. Depp can dance along the dangerous high wire with the best of his generation, and at one time, may have been on course to challenge the screen’s greats.

I brought the shirt to remind myself that it might be a good idea to lower the bar a bit. “Black Mass,” his big-ticket festival release, is just the third film from director Scott Cooper (after the critically lauded “Crazy Heart” and “Out of the Furnace”) and gains a huge boost in credibility from the all-star talent backing Depp up—the imminently buzz-worthy Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Kevin Bacon and Peter Sarsgaard. And Depp as the notorious real-life Boston crime figure James “Whitey” Bulger, already fictionalized to great effect by Jack Nicholson in Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed,” writes a mighty big check that I wasn’t sure Depp was ready to cash.

Rest assured though, Depp could take this one to the bank and retire forever. His Bulger is the stuff of legend. Known as a Boston tough guy from one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the city, Bulger became infamous for his role as an FBI informant who used the position to wipe out his rivals and expand his reach far beyond the Northeast.

Depp shows us the terrifying devil of a man; the ruthless boss who never rose too far from getting his own hands bloody. For Bulger, it was never merely a question of necessary actions or expediency. Killing was business and he was a consummate businessman. Cooper presents the fearlessness of men like Bulger and his underlings as they walked up to men in broad daylight and executed them with potential witnesses nearby. Early on, Bulger explains to his young son that bad deeds are not the issue—trouble comes from getting caught and if no one sees, then it didn’t happen. Bulger and his crew dared people to see.

As an actor, Depp treads similar territory. He is one of Hollywood’s most recognizable faces who, time and again, assumes roles, challenging us to ignore the Johnny Depp persona that we know all too well and simply follow (and believe in) the characters. With impossible subtlety, Depp disappears inside the demonic skin suit that is Bulger. In the swift and brutal violence that immediately defines him, and in quieter moments—playing cards with his aging mother or in the aforementioned scene with his son at the dinner table—Depp drops the hard edge and approaches real human vulnerability, which then makes the explosive instances that much more frightening.

And he is matched almost note for note by Edgerton, who most recently offered up “The Gift,” his multi-hyphenate exploration of psychological horrors that scare and unsettle without being found on some left-behind digital camera. As John Connolly, the FBI special agent who enlists Bulger as an informant and then proceeds to cover up his more diabolical deeds, Edgerton allows us access to the loyalty of a neighborhood chum succumbing to ambition and allure in equal measure. His side narrative is all about fooling oneself, and Edgerton charms and manhandles the audience in ways similar to Depp.

In the end, this is Depp’s showcase. The next time I wear that “Mortdecai” T-shirt I will do so with pride, thanks to this most unholy “Black Mass.”