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.”

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

QR Code to How is Johnny Depp's portrayal of James 'Whitey' Bulger in 'Black Mass'?
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today