Johnny Depp in Scott Cooper’s ‘Black Mass’

A study in menace

A full-face close-up of Johnny Depp as gangster James “Whitey” Bulger, receding hair slicked back, one dull front tooth, the cold, blank eyes of a king cobra.

Stubby fingers in a greasy bowl of nuts. A pudgy, unshaved Boston hood munching away, oblivious.

In a low, even voice, Depp/Bulger curses the man — a stone killer — as a worthless lowlife pig (which he is). The man cravenly apologizes.

Fetching as a barracuda: Johnny Depp in ‘Black Mass.’ (© 2015 - Warner Bros. Pictures)

Thus opens Black Mass, a biopic of Jimmy Bulger (call him “Whitey” and get a slap across the face at the very least), the 1970s gangster whose devil’s pact with the FBI rocketed him from just another mid-level gang leader in Boston’s south section to the number one criminal in Beantown.

And thus is set, too, a level of incipient menace that emanates from every frame with Depp’s Bulger. The menace is always there, a psychic shroud, cold like death itself.

When he strikes, it is violent and brutal and deadly and means nothing to him. He strangles a young prostitute for talking to the cops, innocently enough, when she is arrested. He drops her lifeless body to the floor like a bundle of rags and steps past his hoodlum onlookers, muttering, “I’m gonna take a fucking nap. Wake me in an hour.”

He shakes hands with a victim just as the man is shot in the back of the head. Bulger saunters back to the car, already preoccupied with his next deviltry.

Different gangsters, different vibes

Johnny Depp has drained every last ounce of humanity from his Whitey Bulger. Depp’s 2009 portrayal of John Dillinger in Public Enemies caught Dillinger’s ability to connect with Depression America. Johnny Dillinger, as he was popularly known, liked publicity, courted it, and earned Robin Hood status for being a homicidal maniac who robbed banks. Depp made him cocky and fetching, which he was.

His Whitey Bulger is as fetching as a barracuda. Early on, Bulger did nine years for bank robbery. He had his sentence cut by taking experimental LSD — not hippie window pane or purple haze, but mega-mikes of U.S. Army acid — more than 50 times. It’s not a good practice to give that much super LSD to someone termed a psychopath by the FBI. What you get is the Whitey Bulger of Black Mass: a black hole of pure menace.

Other actors have had a go at the Whitey Bulger persona — Jack Nicholson in The Departed and James Woods in segments of Ray Donovan on Showtime — but they were mainly based on Bulger. Johnny Depp is Whitey Bulger, having spent two and a half hours daily getting into the prosthetic face that coldly surveys his Southie criminal kingdom and perfecting the Boston accent with which he delivers his satanic commands.

In retrospect, not a great idea

The Boston FBI were the priests whose black mass conjured the devil that was Whitey Bulger. They were led by agent John Connolly (played with loudmouth brio by Joel Edgerton), who knew Whitey from their childhood days in Southie. Connolly had the brainstorm to recruit Bulger as an informant against the Boston Mafia, the FBI’s number one target. Bulger called it an “alliance” and signed on, ignoring totally the FBI caveat that there were to be no more killings. Telling Bulger to cease his homicidal activities was like telling an otter not to fish. The body count rose and rose. Bulger and his Winter Hill Gang had a true ticket to ride.

The feds in Black Mass are the New England cousins of the FBI agents in American Hustle, greedy careerists who are quickly over their heads in gangsterland. The difference is that the payoff in Black Mass isn’t the comic shenanigans of American Hustle, but dead bodies in real-life Boston. In Whitey Bulger, the FBI created their own golem, an uncontrollable mudman.

Through all this, almost unbelievably, Bulger’s little brother Billy, played with understandable restraint by the fantastically named Benedict Cumberbatch, has risen to become a key player in the Massachusetts Senate. It is an ironic New England tale worthy of a modern-day Hawthorne.

Meaty secrets

Writers Jez Butterworth and Mark Mallouk and director Scott Cooper pay homage to the iconic Joe Pesci-Ray Liotta “Do I amuse you?” scene in Goodfellas. Their take has Bulger and his partner Stephen “The Rifleman” Flemmi, a sheepish, unshaved killer, having dinner in, of all places, FBI man Connolly’s home with Connolly’s supervisor, who has marinated their steaks in “a secret family recipe.”

Bulger prevails on the man to reveal the secret recipe and then fixes him with a death stare and asks him if he would give up other secrets that easily. The man blanches and begins to stutter a reply when Bulger gives him a big smile and says, “Hey, I was just fucking with you.” He wasn’t, and everyone at the table knew it. Message delivered.

Johnny Depp should be in the Oscar race for his Whitey Bulger. Members of the Academy of Motion Pictures who don’t vote for him should remember that death stare.

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