Johnny is back from the Depps
Johnny Depp is no stranger to eyeopening transformations. This is, after all, a star who has played everything from a pirate to Tonto, via Willy Wonka and the Mad Hatter.
But the 52-year-old has never been less recognisable than in his role here as notorious crime kingpin James “Whitey” Bulger.
Director Scott Cooper’s biopic brings the remarkable true story of the Boston-based godfather to the big screen, with particular emphasis on Bulger’s time as an FBI informant backed by agent, and old buddy, John Connolly ( Joel Edgerton).
Jez Butterworth (Spectre) and debut scribe Mark Mallouk wrote the screenplay based on former Boston Globe reporters Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill’s book of the same name.
Don’t go in expecting a straight-up biopic of Bulger from childhood to prison cell. Told through the eyes of ex-members of Bulger’s Winter Hill Gang, the focus is on the gangster’s near-decade rise to power.
Even just sticking with this period, there’s still a lot going on and certain characters barely pop up long enough to say hello; Jesse Plemons’s young henchman Kevin Weeks, in particular, is initially set up as a big deal before barely registering as the flick progresses.
Cooper (Out of the Furnace), though, keeps the energy flowing behind the camera with long and wide shots framing a bustling Boston with character around every corner.
The violence is pretty unflinching, with executions regularly taking place in broad daylight but Cooper also knows when to leave things to the audience’s imagination with heinous acts committed off screen, including a ruthless Bulger murder that utilises sound and the reaction of others to excellent effect.
Ultimately, however, Black Mass would live or die by its leading man and after threatening to plummet into career suicide with a string of flops (Mortdecai, Transcendence), Depp is back on scintillating form.
Sporting blue contact lenses, slicked back hair and pale skin, Depp perfectly jumps between death stares and chilling threats and charismatic intimate moments with friends and family.
The film has courted controversy over its glamourising of Bulger’s character but, though he’s seen charming little old ladies and dishing out dodgy parental advice, you never lose sight of the monster within.
Every bit as good as Depp, though, is an immense Edgerton whose loyalty sees him side with a psychopath – and lap up the rewards.
At every turn there’s top acting talent – Kevin Bacon, Corey Stall and Peter Sarsgaard among those shining in smallbut-key roles – with only Benedict Cumberbatch’s wobbly Boston accent letting the side down.
Cooper’s best work yet is no GoodFellas but, thanks to stirring turns from Depp and Edgerton and the gripping story developments, it’s an intense drama that packs a punch.
Crime time Johnny Depp stars as the notorious Bulger