You gotta hand it to Johnny Depp. Like Tom Cruise, he hasn't depended on his matinee idol looks to get his flicks over. Nor has he relied on genre to rake in the bucks (although the Pirates series has guaranteed his riches for ten lifetimes). Yet he does have an affinity for the crime category, as we've seen in his unforgettable Donnie Brasco and the not-so-unforgettable Public Enemies. He teamed up with Al Pacino to make Brasco one of the Ten Greatest All-Time Crime Flicks (IMHO), and overshadowed none other than Christian Bale in acing his role as John Dillinger in Enemies. Well, you ain't seen nothin' yet if you haven't seen Black Mass.
Scott Cooper (who?) does a masterful job in sailing this ship to shore, considering the fact that it depends far more on Depp's performance than anything else. Yet therein may lie the magic, letting the understatement build evil visions in the audience's mind. There's none of the Scarface blood splatter, no Goodfellas glitz and glamor, none of the high-styling and profiling of The Departed. Whitey Bulger (Depp)'s crew is a lunch pail pick and shovel gang of Boston Irishmen trying to earn an illegal dollar the hard way before getting propositioned by one of Bulger's neighborhood acquaintances. It just so happens that Joel Edgerton (the Pharoah in Exodus: Gods and Kings) is an FBI agent trying to take down the Italian Mob by any means necessary. He makes a deal with Bulger, who feeds the Feds enough intel to trample the Mafia so that the Bulger Gang can step into the power vacuum. It turns Bulger into the USA's most powerful Irish Godfather, ruling Boston with an iron hand until agent John Connolly (Edgerton) is indicted by the Massachusetts DA. Bulger, as is well-known, goes on the run and becomes America's second Most Wanted Man (behind Osama Bin Laden) until his capture at the turn of the century.
It's Depp's performance that truly makes this what the critics call 'mesmerizing'. His dead fish look is absolutely eerie, and his nickname is a most apropos nomenclature (you call him Whitey, he'll split your skull). Bulger's blue-eyed zombie gaze is enough to steal every scene, and every time he stares at someone you're expecting the worst to happen. So does everyone else, and the tension is bloodcurdling. It's hard to remember a baddie captivating the audience in such a manner --- unless you want to include Hannibal Lecter or The Joker.
Such over-the-top performances have a way of getting arbitrarily passed over by the Academy, so Depp may not get the Oscar nod he deserves for this. But you can be damn sure it's a crime flick you'll never forget. And you sure as hell won't forget the name Whitey Bulger.