This past weekend saw the commercial release of two solid, old-fashioned genre films, the gangster picture Black Mass and the man-versus-nature saga Everest. Each one is a measured ensemble drama that contains at least a dozen good-to-very-good performances, most of them underplayed, from a roster of respected actors. And each one revolves around a central, attention-grabbing spectacle that deserves to be seen on a big screen. The spectacle of Everest is, of course, Mount Everest, which the characters ascend over the course of the story. The spectacle of Black Mass is Johnny Depp’s scenery-chewing performance as James “Whitey” Bulger, the Boston crime boss who evaded investigation for years because of connections in the FBI.
Both of these spectacles invoke the fear of death. Mount Everest, with its perilous peaks and harsh weather conditions, poses numerous life-or-death challenges for the climbers who scale it, while Bulger was a psychopath who had many of his enemies and associates murdered. Everest and Black Mass are similar films in that they both use their ensemble casts to heighten the terrifying power of their central figures. No one upstages the mountain in Everest, just like no one upstages Depp in Mass—the large ensembles project a sense of awe, which reinforces the audience’s astonishment.
Everest is the more somber of the two films, which might explain why it didn’t perform as well at the box office. It recounts a tragic 1996 mission (previously told by Jon Krakauer in his nonfiction book Into Thin Air) during which two teams of climbers lost eight members on Mount Everest after getting hit by an unexpected blizzard. The filmmakers take care to show that these deaths were not the result of recklessness, devoting roughly half of the film to the teams’ careful preparation for the ascent. Even before the journey up Everest begins, we’re made to understand exactly what challenges the characters face. (“Your bodies will be literally dying,” one leader says, memorably, to describe the effects of the extreme weather conditions.) The climbers must trust each other with their lives if they’re going to climb successfully, and the filmmakers present their growing camaraderie with uncommon seriousness, granting real weight to the conversations of life-or-death struggles.
Even more than the stunning natural vistas, it’s this air of seriousness that dwarves the personalities onscreen. Consider the short monologue delivered by Josh Brolin’s character about why he climbs. It turns out that this gregarious Texan has been haunted by severe depression for most of his life. Climbing, he explains, is one of the only things that puts his mind at ease. This moment has the potential to be an emotional climax, but Brolin and director Baltasar Kormakur don’t play it that way. Like so many speeches in Everest, the monologue registers as one more bit of information we ought to know about the characters before they risk death together. The script, by William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy, lets us know a little bit about each speaking character’s past, yet no one narrative dominates. The movie represents an act of teamwork, much like the ascent itself.
Black Mass is also an act of teamwork, but in the service of a single performance. Depp’s Bulger is a remarkable creation, involving nearly two dozen credited makeup artists and the cowering of at least that many supporting players. Like James Cagney’s gangster from White Heat, Bulger is a menacing, outsize figure obsessed with power and family values, and he casts a tall shadow over everyone with whom he comes into contact. J.R. Jones notes in his capsule review that the filmmakers don’t try to find a human center for the character—rather, the nuanced supporting performances serve to draw attention to his larger-than-life inhumanity. The many secondary players—among them Benedict Cumberbatch, Joel Edgerton, Jesse Plemons, and W. Earl Brown—take turns glaring and simmering alongside Depp, trying to hold their own against his intense rage. The movie contains more deaths than Everest, yet they lack the human weight one finds in the latter film. Perhaps that’s because Depp, in his monstrousness, is made to seem scarier than death itself.