The tale of Boston crime lord James “Whitey” Bulger is so good that it’s surprising it took this long for someone to make a movie out of it… or at least an official bio-pic anyway. Martin Scorsese flavored his ‘Infernal Affairs’ remake ‘The Departed’ with Whitey’s legend and Joe Berlinger made a pretty fantastic documentary on the subject last year. Now, director Scott Cooper is the guy who made the official Whitey movie and he’s done it well. Not exceptionally, but well.
Johnny Depp stars as Bulger, the king of South Boston crime who managed to take over the entire city once his old neighborhood friend John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) became a local FBI hotshot and had the brilliant idea of making Whitey an informant. Whitey helped bring down the local Italian Mafia, and in turn Connolly helped the FBI turn a blind eye to Bulger’s Southie dealings. Once the Mafia left town, Whitey became of the king of the Boston underworld with FBI protection. He also stopped giving information and went a little mad with power. That’s not a recipe for success that can last forever.
Director Cooper (‘Crazy Heart’, ‘Out of the Furnace’) structures his movie around a few police interrogations with Bulger’s closest associates. That allows the movie to play out in loose flashbacks, which helps condense the 20-year storyline into a feature length film, but doesn’t add much dramatically beyond narrative tightening. Everything plays out in condensed Cliff’s Notes style, with Cooper borrowing tricks from the Scorsese handbook and decades of Scorsese knockoffs. It feels like many gangster movies you’ve seen before, which is a shame since this particular narrative is so unique. However, even Whitey’s tale has been told twice before, so the sense of familiarity is inevitable.
While Cooper might not exactly be an innovative filmmaker, the actor-turned-director does know how to get the best work out his cast and that’s where the movie is strongest. This is a big ensemble piece that the filmmaker cast damn well. Edgerton shines as a twitchy opportunist caught between his successful law enforcement career and his lifelong ties to the local crime community, while everyone from Benedict Cumberbatch to Rory Cochrane, Kevin Bacon, Dakota Johnson, Adam Scott and Juno Temple fill in the faces on the sidelines and provide living, breathing characters to roles that could have been dismissible plot devices.
Yet, despite all the big names doing strong work, the movie belongs to Johnny Depp. This is easily one of his best performances in years, if only because it’s one of his least mannered. Depp doesn’t do any of the flamboyant, surreal and cartoonish characterization he’s been treading water with since ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’. His work here is far more subtle. He’s a dead-eyed and deadly sociopath who sizes every situation up to his advantage and seems seconds away from exploding in a violent rage on even his nearest and dearest at all times. His slicked-back, receding hairline and mouth of gnarled teeth give off an almost urban working class vampire vibe, and the actor best known for his exuberant likability comes off as quietly evil, the kind of person you could meet by turning down the wrong street.
Depp delivers a truly great performance, one that actually eclipses the movie containing it, which is merely good.