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Film review: Johnny Depp menaces in gangster epic Black Mass

Depp, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dakota Johnson and Joel Edgerton all nail their roles in story of James "Whitey" Bulger

PUBLISHED : Monday, 26 October, 2015, 12:01pm
UPDATED : Monday, 26 October, 2015, 12:01pm

For those outside his native Boston, the name James “Whitey” Bulger might not strike fear. But judging by Johnny Depp’s portrayal in Black Mass – in what is easily the actor’s best work in a decade – Bulger was a ticking timebomb, both cruel and complex. One minute, he’s carrying old ladies’ groceries in “Southie”, the working-class Boston suburb where he grew up; the next, he’s dumping bodies in the river.

If that were all, Black Mass would just be another run-of-the-mill psychopath story; but Scott Cooper, who dealt with rural violence in his  previous film Out of the Furnace, digs deep in this vivid, rich telling.

Bulger’s brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch) was one of Massachusetts’ most recognised politicians. His childhood friend was FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), who strikes a deal with Whitey to turn informant – inadvertently allowing him to eliminate his rivals. Power has never felt so blood-soaked.

With piercing blue eyes, callous expression and oil-slicked hair, Depp’s transformation is quite something. Some will find it off-putting, but stopping at the superficial means ignoring the way the actor burrows into Bulger’s charred soul.

Yet Depp is just one element of a uniformly excellent cast: Dakota Johnson as Bulger’s wife Lindsey; Kevin Bacon, Adam Scott  and Corey Stoll as the Feds on his case; Peter Sarsgaard as a wired-out liability; Jesse Plemons and Rory Cochrane as increasingly discontented enforcers. There’s not a dud among them.

Marshalling his cast, Cooper also paints 1970s Boston in muted greys and whites that further adds to Black Mass’ refined textures. It’s certainly the finest gangster film since Martin Scorsese’s Oscar-winner The Departed, said to be loosely based on Bulger. It may even sit close to his 1990 masterpiece Goodfellas. Violent, uncompromising and superbly executed, this is visceral filmmaking of the highest order.

Black Mass opens on October 29