In what in my opinion was the first release to start the 2016 Oscar season, which begins at the start of the fall and lasts through February, was this film from director Scott Cooper (2009’s “Crazy Heart” and 2013’s “Out of the Furnace”) who seemed like a wise choice to adapt the feature film true story of the city of Boston’s most notorious and long running crime boss, James “Whitey” Bulger, whose ascent to power from a small time crook in the mid-seventies to the godfather of the Irish Mob who wrecked havoc on the city of Boston for the next 15 years that followed came with much enthusiasm and anticipation on my part. For one, the crime genre is one in which I love, a genre of which I admittedly seek out just about every good-looking film to come out of it. Then there was the casting of Johnny Depp, an actor of whom I admire but to be honest that I have been terribly disappointed with in terms of the kinds of pictures he’s attached himself in recent years. In fact, I’ve been so displeased with his movie choices that he’s another one of those actors of whom I spoke of in a recent review that I had almost become “blacklisted” because of the trajectory in which his career has taken since ever since well, he played John Dillinger in the 2009 Michael Mann crime film – “Public Enemies” (a film in which I personally really liked but which had its fair share of detractors, mostly because it was shot on digital). So for me it was the first Johnny Depp release that I had been excited about in almost 6 years. That and the word from the Toronto Film Festival, where it premiered just a few short weeks ago, was that Depp underwent a full transformation to play the infamous Bulger. Sporting half a head of hair, wrinkles, caps on his teeth, and crystal blue contact lenses. But even more than just playing a character that looked like the real Bulger, underneath it was word that his performance was incredible. And much talk had been building up about him earning his first Oscar nomination for Best Actor since his turn 8 years ago as Sweeney Todd in Tim Burton’s – “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” (2007). So I was excited about the prospect of a return to form, at least in terms of genre, since the days of “Donnie Brasco” (1997), “Blow” (2001), and the aforementioned “Public Enemies” (2009).
The story doesn’t take it’s time in jumping us right into the world of James ‘Whitey’ Bulger. Who we’re first introduced to after an opening taped confession by one of his right hand man’s (the new to me and rather impressive Jesse Plemons) testimony to the FBI. Which I thought was an interesting way to start the film, towards the end of his reign. Him being one of Bulger’s most respected wise-guys and showing his open testimony with the FBI. We then jump back in time to 1975, where we meet Bulger (played by Depp), an up-and-coming wise guy who is just starting to make his presence felt in the city of Boston, specifically in the South Boston section of the city. We learn rather quickly in a scene involving both him and the character played by Plemons, recently beat to a pulp by one of the members of the biggest rivals of the Whitey Hill Gang (a moniker the city and FBI would coin him and his cronies with), the Italian Mob; the Angiulo’s, and in one of the first act’s payback scenes we soon realize you better not double cross Bulger, or any other members of his gang for that matter. Following this, we’re introduced to a plethora of different characters, most of whom are integral to Bulger’s real life persona. The key three players being Bulger himself, his brother Billy, a prominent Massachusetts state senator (played by Benedict Cumberbatch), and their childhood friend, John, now a head supervisor in the FBI (played by the always reliable Joel Edgerton who just wrote, directed, and starred in this summer’s “The Gift”). Bulger also has a wife at home, as well as a son and mother of whom he cares for deeply. As he begins to make his mark on the city and ascends to power, he links up with his childhood friend now turned FBI agent John, who enlists Bulger to be an FBI informant in order to take down his rival gang, the Italian Mob family Angiulo. This sequeways into the second act of the film, where Bulger pretty much is handed the keys to the castle since he is now protected by the law, to wreak havoc on the city of Boston by whatever means necessary. And becomes a kingpin in racketeering, drugs, and committing countless murders. Director Cooper seamlessly shows this transition rather nicely as the psychopathic Bulger, begins to carry out all of his own “duties” on his own. After all, why wouldn’t Bulger? He’s both a made man and even more importantly a man protected by the FBI.
This was a film that had me thinking intently following in both my movie group’s post-meetup discussion and well into the rest of the evening. Let me start by pointing out what I liked about the film. First off, was the totally immersive and trans-formative performance by Depp, which is really hard to explain in words and is something you should see for yourself. At no point throughout the film did I feel like I was watching Johnny Depp. Which contradicted Jack Nicholson’s version of Bulger in Martin Scorsese’s grossly overrated crime film “The Departed” (2006), whose performance I felt like fell on the side of self parody and who in my opinion was terribly miscast. Depp plays the character to a T even underneath all of the makeup. It’s an astonishing piece of method acting. Depp nails all of the sociopathic mannerisms (or shall I say “Bulgerisms”) and makes the character so convincing, that each time he’s on screen you fear for what he’s going to do next. Never mind the piercing cold stares he gives through those crystal clear blue contacts that literally makes it seem like he’s looking through everyone he runs into. It’s a bravura performance and one that just might land him an Oscar nomination. Though it might wind up being “too cold” for the Academy. I also liked how it defied my expectations and was nothing like the fast-paced, hyper-kenetic Scorcese gangster films of the same genre, but permeated a sense of stillness and tranquility throughout (as I shared with my group – at one point I whispered to one of its members sitting next to me – “why is this film so quiet”? Only to hear Depp utter the same words mere moments later in the film, but said with a few more profanities thrown in). I think this is a testament to Cooper’s handle of his treatment of the material, making it feel almost clinical and procedural, so when the violence does erupt in several key scenes, it packs such a wallop, that really all it can do is send a shiver down your spine. This more restrained approach was one of the film’s greatest strong points outside of the acting. It boasts a great cast with the aforementioned Edgerton and a lot of familiar faces in small parts, like the aforementioned Cumberbatch (who has very little actual screen time), Kevin Bacon, Adam Scott, Juno Temple, and who was maybe the biggest surprise, the incredibly talented Peter Sarsgaard, who plays a small but important role contextually speaking.
Well, even despite the film’s strong points there were several other areas of the film in which I had some pretty significant criticisms of. For one, it’s overly long and felt unnecessarily stretched out especially within its final act or the film’s last third. Even at 122 minutes, it felt like about 20-25 minutes could have been trimmed off of it and it still would have been equally to if not just as effective. I also had a difficult time in how it treated some of the film’s characters. Both Bulger’s and Edgerton’s wives are introduced as integral parts to the story only to be dropped completely halfway through (one of my movie member’s called this an “implication”). Why some may agree, In this sense they; along with many of the other film’s many other characters, felt underdeveloped with a lack of follow through on behalf of the writing team. Then there was the film’s weakest link, in that it felt like it didn’t know how to end itself. And does so rather abruptly and anticlimactically. Even despite many of its strong components, when all is said and done, it wound up feeling like something that was all a little bit too familiar like something we’ve seen done a dozen times before – a slightly above average, run-of-the-mill crime-drama biopic, saved mostly by its scene-stealing, can’t look away possible awards contender performance by Depp. On top of that, its treatment is topical and really never digs deeper than below the surface. While I can recommend seeing it; mainly just for Depp’s performance, in hindsight; at least for me, it’s the kind of film I wished I would have waited to see in second run theaters.
[a strong B-]