James "Whitey" Bulger was more like a character from a 17th-century folktale than a late-20th-century criminal, the sort of figure who'd murder innocents on wooded roadways and then, with a shrug, toss their bloody bones to hungry wild dogs. In '80s and early-'90s Boston, he headed a criminal syndicate known as the Winter Hill Gang, thugs who plied their trade — selling drugs, extorting small local businesses out of millions, bumping off anyone who happened to look at them sideways — on the streets of Southie, using a dive bar called the Triple O's as HQ. Bulger was as mean as they come, a snickering little rat in a windbreaker and cowboy boots, and though everyone knew he was up to no good, nothing ever stuck to him. Even the FBI was hoodwinked: He served as an informant, though the information he forked over turned out to be useless. If you were living in his city at the time, whenever his name would pop up in the news, you'd more likely than not feel a shiver of revulsion mingled with a twisted curiosity. Who was this heartless creep, and how could he get away with so much? The fact that he was the brother of straight-arrow Massachusetts Senate President William "Billy" Bulger made him even more fascinating. The two were like streetwise, fun-house-mirror Kennedys, one of whom had made good, the other distorted by pure evil.
Whitey Bulger disappeared in late 1994; he was finally captured in Santa Monica in 2011 and is now serving two consecutive life terms, plus five years, at USP Coleman. But he rides again, onscreen at least, in Scott Cooper's ambitious and engaging Black Mass, where he's played by Johnny Depp in a fake bald pate so wide and solid you could bounce a basketball off it. The elaborate makeup job is a problem: Depp might have been better off just channeling Whitey from deep within — it's almost as if the radiation beams he's trying to send out can't penetrate all of that latex.
Even so, Black Mass is a tightly wound piece of work, and Cooper (Crazy Heart, Out of the Furnace) keeps its many small parts moving with ease. He's skillful at merging telling, minute details with bigger, looping schemes. We see Whitey sitting down to play cards, circa the mid-'70s, with his senior-citizen mom (who's shocked when he won't take the opportunity to cheat) and working his treacherous wiles on one of his childhood pals, now grown up to be FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton, who plays his character as likable, believable, and just slightly pitiable). Connolly thought he could use Bulger to break up a Boston Mafia syndicate, only to step all too easily into Bulger's pit of corruption himself. Connolly too is serving a prison sentence, 40 years for a second-degree murder conviction.
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Bulger's is a horrible and brutal story, and Black Mass never shrinks from it. After he puts a bullet in the head of a crony who defies him and later tries to apologize, Bulger and his all-too-loyal henchmen bury the body under a bridge on the Neponset River, as if it were just the sort of thing you'd do on a sunny weekday, or any time, really. Most of the violence occurs off-camera, but you wouldn't call the film tasteful: The sound of a young prostitute (Juno Temple) gasping for breath as Bulger squeezes the life out of her is almost more harrowing than anything Cooper might have chosen to show. And Cooper's sprawling cast — including Benedict Cumberbatch as the stalwart but unfortunate Billy Bulger, whose political career was destroyed after it was revealed he'd been in touch with the disappeared Whitey — is almost uniformly terrific. The now-playing-everywhere Dakota Johnson appears in a small role as the mother of Whitey's young son: There's a sweet but flinty pensiveness about her, particularly when she lashes out after her sometime partner lectures her about her manner of dealing with a tragedy that has shaken them both. (It's telling that of all the players in this vicious, sorry tale, only a woman has the nuts to stand up to this snake.) If you're an expert on Boston accents, you might find a few shaky bits here and there, but the actors strike the right mood and tone, which is what counts.
The only performer I couldn't wholly buy is Depp. With that prosthetic balding scalp and strange glued-on eyebrows, he looks less like the real Whitey Bulger than like a bulb-headed alien from an old Twilight Zone episode. I tried hard to look beyond the makeup, but the more I watched the performance, the more mechanical it seemed: Depp as Bulger is meticulous and deliberate, scowling at his enemies (basically, everyone) through smoke-tinted aviators or allowing some chilling pronouncement to leak from the side of his mouth. But I kept thinking of another actor who had played similar roles or types and who had perhaps done it better. Unintentionally, maybe, Depp appears to be channeling Ray Liotta, and his tics and mannerisms feel more derivative than original and complex.
Since the premiere of Black Mass in Venice, numerous critics have been murmuring about how terrific they think Depp is, which means it won't be long before people start using the O-word. Actually, this is the sort of performance that could easily win an Academy Award — which isn't the same as calling it good. For years, Depp was one of our most sensitive, original actors; more recently, buried under matted pirate hair and all those layers of Tim Burton makeup, we seem to have lost him. Black Mass will probably be hailed as a comeback, and that's not a bad thing — it might help boost Depp out of a stagnant period. But it's still disheartening to see such a marvelous actor running the numbers in his head instead of slipping right into a character's skin. Whitey Bulger pulled off an almost magical disappearing act and then somehow stayed hidden for years. Maybe he's such a sneaky, mean little creep that not even Johnny Depp can find him. That's the mark of a really bad guy.
Starring Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Rory Cochrane, Jesse Plemons, W. Earl Brown, David Harbour, Dakota Johnson, Julianne Nicholson, Juno Temple, and Kevin Bacon. Directed by Scott Cooper. Written by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth. Based on the book Whitey by Dick Lehr and Gerard O'Neill. 122 minutes. Rated R.