Black Mass, Venice Film Festival 2015 review: Johnny Depp's vicious and psychotic Whitey Bulger is a triumph of sorts

Dir: Scott Cooper Starring: Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dakota Johnson

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The Independent Culture

Johnny Depp gives an utterly chilling performance as the notorious James "Whitey" Bulger in Boston-set crime drama Black Mass (a world premiere at The Venice Film Festival.)

He has played gangsters and petty criminals before but never as one as cold-hearted as Bulger. This is a man who does drugs, extortion and murder without blinking or showing the barest flicker of emotion; someone who will throttle a young prostitute to death before going off to dinner and who will pummel an informer into a bloody pulp for being an informer - even though he has struck his own unholy liaison with the FBI.

Depp here looks nothing like the wistful charmer we know from Tim Burton movies - or from his press conference in Venice, at which his director Scott Cooper described him as the most sweet natured and sensitive actor imagianble.

Bulger's face is pasty and impassive. He is balding and has his hair slicked back. His teeth are bad. Occasionally, when he plays cards with his elderly mom or gives wildly inappropriate advice to the young son he dotes on, he shows traces of charm and humour but they are quickly stifled. His personality is on the vicious side of psychotic.

The effectiveness of Depp's performance turns out to be part of the problem in what is an uneven film and one that is very hard to like. Depp's Bulger is the dark and repulsive presence at the heart of the movie. Based on the book of the same name by Boston Globe journalists, Black Mass tells the jaw-dropping story of how Bulger, a low life Irish-American hoodlum from the South Side of Boston, became the dominant figure in the city's underworld largely thanks to the FBI's connivance.

FBI agent John Connolly (Edgerton), who grew up alongside Bulger and held him in awe, persuaded him to become an informer. Bulger helped the Feds to bust the Italian mafia - and then took over from them.

Director Scott Cooper does an effective enough job of portraying the Boston underworld. This is a film that takes blue collar 1970s grittiness to extremes. Colours are desaturated. The FBI agents wears suits with big lapels and ties with very fat knots. The gangsters have sideburns and big hair. Cooper has assembled some tremendous character actors to play Bulger's henchmen in the so-called Winter Hill gang. There is W. Earl Brown as the chubby, none too hygienic Johnny Martorano, the gang's main executioner who commits murder in an eerily calm, matter of fact way; Rory Cochrane as his trusted pal, Stephen 'The Rifleman' Flemmi, and Jesse Plemon as his hard-brawling young associate Kevin Weeks.

The film boasts a lot of very vivid and colourful acting. Bulger's Boston is a man's world but Dakota Johnson (in a role a long way from 50 Shades) is affecting as Bulger's long-suffering wife while Juno Temple registers very strongly in a tiny cameo as a hooker. In its storytelling, Black Mass opts for a linear approach. It is as predictable as any old fashioned morality tale.


Many of its protagonists and its settings seem as if they've been borrowed from gangster movies past, whether from the James Cagney era or from Scorsese. There isn't much spark to the relationship between Depp and his vain and increasingly combustible FBI handler Connolly. True to life - and to genre conventions - Connolly begins to behave more and more like the gangsters he is ostensibly trying to bring down.

In a full blooded and sometimes blustering performance, Edgerton shows us the mix of hero worship, tribal loyalty and career ambition that makes him so deferential to Bulger but there is no sense the two men are friends. As a buddy movie, the film is therefore a non-starter.

It seems perverse for Cooper to cast an actor as accomplished as Benedict Cumberbatch to play Bulger's brother, prominent Boston politician Willy Bulger, and then give him so little to do. Black Mass is a triumph of sorts for Depp. It shows him tapping a malevolence and cruelty that many fans would never have guessed was in him.

As a gangster movie, though, it is a frustrating and strangely dour affair. Bulger's success lay in the fact that he was smart, ruthless and never showed emotion. He is simply too inscrutable and aloof a figure to make a satisfactory anti-hero. Movie villains don't come any less loveable than this.