Once in a while we the audiences get treated to a performance that goes beyond anything that we’ve ever seen. DeNiro’s Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull, comes to mind. Jamie Foxx’s depiction of Ray Charles in “Ray” is another good one. And Heath Ledger’s psychotic depiction of comic book villain “The Joker” makes a noted mentioning. And the most recent to this collection would have to be Bradley Cooper’s portrayal of Navy S.E.A.L. Chris Kyle in American Sniper. But now the latest addition to this is Johnny Depp’s absolutely spot on cold-blooded and terrifying depiction of gangster James “Whitey” Bulger a man who ruled South Boston, MA, or Southie as it’s commonly referred to, like a dictator rules his kingdom with an iron fist and lead law enforcement on a decade long chase. Believe it or not.
Granted this is technically not the first time that Bulger’s story has been brought to the big screen. His story was the inspiration behind the character of Frank Costello depicted with comedic over-the-top darkness by none other than Jack Nicholson in Scorsese crime-classic actionier The Departed. But while that was a stylized depiction based on a Hong Kong action caper there is no tongue and cheek depiction here. And the violence is by no means stylized here. It comes not with a flash of style but with an appropriate burst of brutality. From a behind the head shot to the strangulation of possible informant all of it comes right in front of your face in all its glory. “This is what I do to rats” it’s explained by Depp with just as cold-blooded delivery as that. These are the people who’s world we are in and it’s a dark one. Credit that to director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart and Out of the Furnace) who removes all color from South Boston. It’s as cold as the characters aiding to the evil of the world we’re engrossed in.
But the real tour de force is that of it’s lead Johnny Depp, he gives the performance of his life here after slipping a bit with a recent string of flops, how many of us would like to forget Transcendence or The Lone Ranger? Well he makes up for it big time here, with a performance that reeks of both evil and terror. From almost shaving his head to appear balding, bleaching his skin, yellow coloring his teeth to giving a stare that when he looks at the camera he looks at you and it’s a stare of brutality that chills your soul. Just witness a scene where he asks for the “secret ingredient” for a steak that just makes you shiver with enough terror that would make Wes Craven himself clap with bravo. Bulger is a wolf with a taste for blood and he goes for blood whenever it’s near from when he guns down two people with no remorse to beating to death someone who could be a “rat.” It’s a performance that sticks with you long after you leave the theater; enough to make you shout “play it again!” It’s the performance of a lifetime from Depp.
But Depp isn’t the only one bringing his A-game to the table without a doubt the biggest surprise is, believe it or not, Dakota Johnson herself in a brilliant cameo playing Bulger’s wife. She wants to give us sympathy for the devil so badly as she shakes off the crust from Fifty Shades of Grey giving intensity and emotion as she begs Depp’s Bulger in the hospital with their sick young son. Bravo to her!
But how did Bulger do this for so long, how did he maintain such a criminal empire for so long? Well, it’s explained from his dealing with an F.B.I. Agent/informant played with both rock-star groupie and edginess by a wonderful Joel Edgerton. He wants to be the right hand to the devil so bad that he does all he can if anything he can to try and kiss up to Bulger. It’s a deal with the devil but to him “that’s just business.” To his younger brother who rises to Speaker of the House of the Massachusetts State Senate played with both remorse and sadness by recent Oscar nominee Benedict Cumberbatch. How or why he does this remains a mystery not even Cumberbatch himself could explain it, nor does he really try, he just shows us a brother who does this out of sheer misplaced loyalty. You understand the sadness in his eyes to a point where we could just nod and say, “I get it” just as simple as that.
But in spite of all of it’s technical achievements and performances it’s going inevitably be compared to other “gangster” films from The Godfather to Goodfellas to Casino to The Departed to The Sopranos. Here there’s no comparison here we’re given a world of cold men who’s acts of violence leave a scare that South Boston will never recover from. It’s a powerhouse of a film that leaves you breathless, just see it.
Written by Jason Greathouse
4 out of 4 stars