Johnny Depp embodies the notorious Whitey Bulger who rose to legend status within Boston’s Irish mafia. Bulger (who was eventually caught and sent to prison), was known for being a brutal mobster that would have someone killed for insulting him, even if that insult was rendered accidentally. He was also known for building a criminal empire and even raising a family while he did it. The brutality of Bulger and the humanity of him come together at different points through the script which result in some of the more intriguing sequences along the way. Whether this actually happened or not, there’s a chilling scene where Bulger is teaching his son the lesson of “if you’re going to punch a kid in the face, just make sure you do it when noone’s looking so you can get away with it”. The way that Depp’s character passes along that life lesson to the child is one of the more subtle but memorable and unsettling moments in the film.
The story is a compelling portrayal of Bulger and his rise to power during his time as a CIA informant. Yes, you read that correctly, it turns out Bulger had a childhood friend who ended up working on the opposite side of crime in addition to a brother who was a US senator! And for years, the 3 of them worked in harmony to advance their respective careers while keeping certain corrupt activities off the radar of the various related entities who might be interested in such matters. Bulger, very smartly and ambitiously served as an informant on his competitors which eliminated them and paved the way for the building of his own criminal empire.
Acting-wise, this is Depp in his prime as his performance as Bulger is as riveting as it is disturbing. You hate this guy but you can’t help wanting to watch him at the same time. He’s cold but somehow charismatic, it’s interesting to see how he became a leader, a terrifying and intimating leader nonetheless; but in that world it’s understandable, even necessary perhaps. It’s nice to see Johnny Depp doing a real character piece instead of the cookie-cutter caricatures he’s been involved with as of late. Watching him in this role reminded me of how deep his talent actually goes.
The rest of the cast is competent and strong in certain scenes but are kind of out-shined when sharing screen time with the lead. It seemed like they were just trying to provide support but couldn’t really break out past that point. Even the actress playing his wife seems diminished, which could’ve equated to a more interesting and intensive character. It’s a bit of shame that everyone was a bit overshadowed as the lineup is comprised of talented actors and includes Benedict Cumberbatch, Dakota Johnson, Kevin Bacon, Peter Sarsgaard, Adam Scott, and Julianne Nicholson.
If you dig mob or true crime films, be sure to catch Black Mass.
reviewed by Sean McKnight