Depp's performance a bright spot in midnight-dark "Black Mass" 

'BLACK MASS': Johnny Depp (behind the wheel) takes on the persona of  ruthless sociopath Whitey Bulger.
  • 'BLACK MASS': Johnny Depp (behind the wheel) takes on the persona of ruthless sociopath Whitey Bulger.

From Jesse James to Cagney in "White Heat" to Tony Soprano, shameless sociopaths who dodge the system to make their American dream a reality at the business end of the gun are among our favorite anti-heroes. That's all fine and dandy when it's fiction; when we can convince ourselves that what they do is just Hollywood bombast that could never happen in our country of cops and courtrooms.

When you spend two-plus hours watching the exploits of a real person who terrorized real people and took real lives, however, a viewer can leave the theater craving a shower, or maybe a concealed carry permit.

As seen in the new Johnny Depp vehicle "Black Mass," criminals don't come much more ruthless than James "Whitey" Bulger, a former guest of Alcatraz who rose to the heights of Boston's criminal underworld with the help of a few well-compensated friends in the local FBI field office. Though the film feels aimless at times, more interested in ticking off the big landmarks of Bulger's rise than in helping us understand the man and his motives, it's worth seeing just for Depp's standout turn as the explosive, blue-eyed crime boss. While the character Depp plays (and, according to Bulger's former associates in the murderous Winter Hill Gang, it is an almost entirely made-up character) is so evil that his own mother would likely be wary of accepting a ride to church for fear she'd wind up in a shallow grave under an overpass, Depp positively inhabits Bulger, allowing himself to be possessed by the man in much the same way he was by Edward Scissorhands, Capt. Jack Sparrow and Willy Wonka. The difference here is that instead of a rum-pickled pirate or giggling man-child, Depp has given himself over to the mind and mannerisms of a murderous psychopath and the results are outright terrifying. I'd be surprised if the performance doesn't earn him an Oscar nomination.

The film begins in 1975, with the FBI stymied in its attempts to take down the mob in Boston and Bulger still a small-time hood running an Irish-American crew in South Boston. Does it matter that Bulger's brother, William "Billy" Bulger — played well here by Benedict Cumberbatch — was by then the president of the Massachusetts Senate, a position he would hold for almost two decades? Forget it, Jake. It's Boston.

Things take a turn toward the big time for Bulger when ambitious FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) approaches him with a devil's deal: feed Connolly information to help Connolly bring down the Italian mafia in Boston and make a name for himself, and he'll protect Bulger and make sure the Winter Hill Gang can operate unimpeded. Once Connolly gets a taste for the fame and high life that being a friend of Bulger provides to a lowly civil servant, things quickly go over a cliff into the abyss, all while the seemingly Teflon-coated Irish kingpin murders his way up the criminal ladder.

The flaw in "Black Mass" for a lot of viewers is probably that Depp's Bulger, and almost everybody else in this film, is so unlikeable that there is literally nobody to root for other than anybody who was smart enough to stay out of the way. Even the FBI agents who aren't on the take come across as the worst kind of bureaucratic assholes. Only Connolly's wife and Bulger's girlfriend seem like decent human beings, and they're out of the picture quickly.

Whereas guys like Tony Soprano and Michael Corleone have their glimmers of redemption — the compartmentalized moments where the audience can say, "Sure he just shot a guy in the head while the victim begged for his life, but he sure loves those ducks!" — Bulger is like a walking lump of plutonium that bleeds invisible mayhem instead of radiation, infecting and stunting everything he touches. He's no anti-hero. He's just anti. Anti-compassion, anti-life, anti-joy. Give him a ragged cloak, and he'd be one of the Dementors from the Harry Potter flicks.

If you're OK with that, this is the film for you. Depp's performance — pale, sunken cheeked, wearing water blue contacts and looking a bit like Golem from "The Lord of the Rings" — is excellent. Just be sure to have some chocolate, a Taylor Swift CD or some mood-elevating drugs waiting for you in the car when you leave the theater. After two hours in the company of Whitey Bulger, you'll likely need a pick-me-up.


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