How is Johnny Depp's portrayal of James 'Whitey' Bulger in 'Black Mass'?

'Black Mass,' which is based on the book of the same name by Dick Lehr and Gerard O'Neill, also stars such actors as Benedict Cumberbatch and Joel Edgerton. It opens Friday.

Claire Folger/Warner Bros. Entertainment/AP
'Black Mass' stars Johnny Depp (r.) and Joel Edgerton (l.).

“Black Mass,” the film which stars Johnny Depp as convicted Boston mobster James “Whitey” Bulger, opens on Sept. 18 amid critical acclaim for Depp’s performance.

The movie co-stars Benedict Cumberbatch, Joel Edgerton, and Dakota Johnson. It depicts the life of Bulger, who became involved with the FBI and was on the run for many years before being captured in 2011. He is currently serving two life sentences and an additional five years.

“Mass” is based on the book of the same name by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill.

Many critics have praised Depp’s performance in particular. Depp comes to the role after starring in such recent critically panned films as this year’s “Mortdecai,” the 2014 movie “Transcendence,” and 2013’s “The Lone Ranger.” 

Reviewers are calling Depp’s turn in “Black Mass” “better than he’s been in years,” “one of his best,” and “richly absorbing.”

Critics are also praising the rest of the cast, which includes Kevin Bacon, Corey Stoll, Peter Sarsgaard, and Adam Scott.

“[Depp’s] co-stars are even better … Cumberbatch is so riveting and suavely unpleasant… [and] Edgerton… is full-throated and gripping,” wrote one. Others called the cast “top-notch” and “impressive." 

But some felt that they’d seen some of the sequences in the movie before. One reviewer wrote that the film “feels familiar and derivative in some respects,” referencing the “Godfather” movies.

Another referenced the Martin Scorsese film “Goodfellas” and the movie “Scarface,” writing, “[Director Scott] Cooper’s working in a genre that’s become so familiar to us that we’re able to see most of his film’s beats coming before they arrive.” 

Many reviewers also felt a crucial aspect of the film was unexplored: the relationship between Bulger and his brother William Bulger, who became the president of the Massachusetts state Senate and president of the University of Massachusetts. The relationship is “potential dramatic dynamite, yet it’s almost entirely unexplored,” one reviewer wrote, while another called it “a fascinating dynamic that could have – and should have – been more fleshed out in the film.” 

What effect does it have on us when criminals are portrayed by movie stars?

One reviewer felt that “Mass” was not admiring of Bulger or his doings, writing that the film “scarcely glamorizes Bulger's complete allegiance to a life of crime,” but another called Depp’s portrayal of Bulger “undeniably charismatic.” And no matter how the movie portrays him, Bulger is still being played by Depp, one of the biggest movie stars in the world. Some have felt crime movies make the lifestyle look appealing as far back as the 1967 movie “Bonnie and Clyde.”

Interestingly, Bulger himself recently weighed in on this. After high school students wrote to him asking about the idea of legacy, he wrote back, “There are many people more deserving of your time and interests… Don’t waste your time on such as I… My life was wasted and spent foolishly.”

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