Johnny Depp stars as James Bulger, the head of the Winter Hill gang, a drug gang that operates in Boston, Massachusetts, the area known as Southie. The film starts in 1975 during James Bulger or Jimmy’s rise to power. It follows him and the investigation surrounding him for a decade until Jimmy eventually had to go into hiding. The film concludes with an epilogue of Jimmy getting caught and arrested in 2011 in Santa Monica, California.
Many might compare this performance to Depp’s performance in Public Enemies (2009) in which Depp played John Dillinger, the Depression-era gangster in Chicago. There are some similarities to be found, but the way Michael Mann shot Public Enemies sets the two roles far apart, which speaks to how a director can exert more control over a portrayal than the actor. The way Cooper shoots this film is not only representative of the title, a reference to the dark side of the Codfish State, but casts the character as if he’s Freddy Krueger or Michael Myers.
Depp is frequently cast in shadow or shadows. There are moments when we are allowed to look into Depp’s eyes and those moments are absolutely chilling. Yet, a lot of moments has Depp in darkness. He’s in a lot of shots where he’s practically silhouette. It’s a tactic similar to villains portrayed in slasher flicks, or boogeymen in horror films. We’re more on edge over that which we cannot see but whose intimidating presence we feel. He’s like the shark from Jaws. Everytime Deep is on screen, he is scary and one is surprised because you never know what he might do or who he might hurt and kill.
Cooper also does something very similar to what Andrew Dominik did in his direction of Brad Pitt in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Dominik adapted that 2007 film from a novel. Cooper also adapted this film from a book by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill, and maybe this is more a tactic that both books employ, but the stories aren’t really about the criminals. The stories are more about someone close who becomes instrumental in bringing down the criminals.
Joel Edgerton (The Great Gatsby and Exodus: Gods and Kings) co-stars as John Connolly, the aforementioned “someone close.” Edgerton is essentially playing the same function as Casey Affleck in his Oscar-nominated role in The Assassination of Jesse James. The characters are different for sure, but they both serve a comparable function. What’s weird is that even though Depp is the world-wide celebrity, this movie really puts Edgerton center stage.
Depp remains as the ever-present monster lurking in the shadows. He’s the phantom menace, but Edgerton is the character who goes through the arc. He’s like an amalgam of Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon’s characters in The Departed. He straddles both sides of the law and by the end has to choose which side he’s going to defend and to whom he’s going to be loyal.
John Connolly’s loyalty is subsequently tested with various characters on both sides. These characters form this movie’s amazing roster of supporting actors. On the criminal side, there’s Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game) who plays Billy Bulger, the brother to Depp’s character and a powerful state senator. There’s also Peter Sarsgaard (An Education and Shattered Glass) who plays Brian Halloran, a hitman-for-hire. On the cops side, there’s Kevin Bacon who plays Charles Maguire, a FBI director, and Corey Stoll (Midnight in Paris and Ant-Man) who plays Fred Wyshak, the U.S. attorney.
The women are dismissed for the most part. Two in particular get really powerful scenes where they go against Depp but ultimately are brushed to the side or forgotten. Dakota Johnson (Fifty Shades of Grey) plays Jimmy’s wife, Lindsay Cyr, and Julianne Nicholson (Boardwarlk Empire and Masters of Sex) plays John’s wife, Marianne Connolly.
While Depp’s Jimmy Bulger lurks in the shadows, he is brought into the light for two reasons. The first is to show Jimmy’s brutality, and propensity for violence, which Cooper demonstrates immediately. The second reason is to wrestle with a contradiction within Jimmy. The true sin that Jimmy doesn’t tolerate is squealing or being a rat. Yet, Jimmy himself has a relationship with John who is a FBI agent, a relationship that is ultimately just as damaging as the thugs who testify against him.
Depp is great here and he completely dives into this character. Not to say that he doesn’t do so for all his roles, but I haven’t been convinced of Depp’s abilities since Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, his last Oscar nomination. That, 2007, Tim Burton musical also had Depp as a serial killer, cast in a horror-film light. Despite being a sex-symbol for so long, it appears to be a light under which Depp is comfortable.
Five Stars out of Five.
Rated R for brutal violence, language, sexual references and brief drug use.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 2 mins.