Depp goes deep in Black Mass

The blood-chilling career of notorious Boston mobster James “Whitey” Bulger has been dramatized in compelling, appropriately ruthless fashion by director Scott Cooper in Black Mass. Comparisons to such underworld classics as The Godfather (1972) and GoodFellas (1990) would be unfair; Black Mass stands tall on its own merits – chief among them Johnny Depp’s portrayal of the principal character.

With his pale blue eyes, powdery complexion, and thinning pate, Depp’s Bulger glides through – and dominates – the proceedings like a spectral force, his translucent visage suggesting one whose every vestige of humanity has drained away, a being with no fear, no scruples, and no regard for anyone or anything.

There’s not a lot of warmth on display. The streets of Boston have never seemed colder, meaner, or deadlier than they are here, and it’s Bulger who lords over these streets, unchecked in his power or dominance. If he wants a job done, he’s as apt to do it himself as leave it to his underlings in the Winter Hill Gang – all the better to further enhance his reputation.

If that weren’t enough, his younger brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch, in Kennedyesque mode) is comfortably ensconced in his own circle of power, being a much-liked and respected Massachusetts senator.

The ostensible moral barometer for the story, which has been adapted and distilled from Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill’s 2001 book by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth, should be Joel Edgerton’s FBI agent John Connolly, who recruits Bulger as an FBI informant (… or is it the other way around?).

Connolly’s initial motivations for bringing Bulger into the fold may be as much out of childhood nostalgia (Bulger having protected Connolly when they were boys) as an honest, legitimate attempt to bring down organized crime in Boston. Not that it matters in the end, as Connolly’s misguided loyalty proves his ultimate undoing – and would do nothing but besmirch the Bureau’s reputation.

Director Cooper, a former actor whose earlier directorial efforts demonstrated his knack for eliciting good performances – his 2008 feature debut Crazy Heart brought Jeff Bridges a Best Actor Oscar and Maggie Gyllenhaal a nomination as Best Supporting Actress – makes fabulous use of authentic Boston locations, and the actors employ convincing Boston accents throughout.

Black Mass provides Depp with a first-rate opportunity that he takes full advantage of, and there are fine performances across the board. Kevin Bacon, David Harbour, Adam Scott and Corey Stoll represent the FBI, while Jesse Plemons and Earl W. Brown are aboard as Bulger’s back-up. Especially good are Rory Cochrane (fondly remembered for his unforgettable turn as Slater in Richard Linklater’s 1993 masterpiece Dazed and Confused) as Bulger’s right-hand man Chuck Flemmi, and Peter Sarsgaard as coked-up, ill-fated, would-be informant Brian Halloran.

The female contingent is essentially relegated to the background, although Dakota Johnson (as Bulger’s wife Lindsey), Julianne Nicholson (as Connolly’s wife Marianne), and particularly Juno Temple (as the aptly-named teen tart Deborah Hussey) make the most of limited screen-time. !

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