A new film that follows the criminal career of notorious gangster James “Whitey” Bulger, Black Mass, stars Johnny Depp and Dakota Johnson. Depp’s portrayal of the violent, vicious criminal who expands his empire while informing for the FBI has some talking about an Oscar nomination.
An unholy union
It’s 1975 and James “Whitey” Bulger has made a deal with the FBI - he will inform on his rivals if the Feds look the other way when his cohorts - The Winter Hill Gang - take over.
Bulger’s hold over South Boston is being challenged by the Angiulo brothers, a powerful crime family with ties to the mafia. When Whitey’s old friend John Connolly - played by Australian actor Joel Edgerton - returns to Southie, he is set on taking down the Angiulo brothers.
Connolly first tries to persuade Billy Bulger, a Boston senator played by Benedict Cumberbatch - to get his criminal brother to inform. It’s only after the Angiulo Brothers murder a member of the Winter Hill Gang that Whitey decides to turn informer.
A legendary performance
Depp’s portrayal of the legendary Boston gangster is being hailed as a triumph. The actor is barely recognizable in the make-up and prosthetics he dons for the role.
Depp says that he had no problem playing someone with Bulger’s reputation for violence.
“With a character like James Bulger, I think you just have to approach him as a, just as a human being in the sense that nobody wakes up in the morning and shaves or brushes their teeth and looks in the mirror and thinks ‘I’m evil’ or ‘I’m going to do something evil today,’” he said.
Dakota Johnson, who plays Bulger’s one-time common law wife Lyndsey Cur, says that Depp’s transformation into Bulger was chilling.
“I had done so much research about Whitey so I had seen his face so many times, and then to see Johnny with just like the energy it was so intense,” she said.
Bulger’s lawyer helps out
Depp says that some of his portrayal’s intensity came from meetings with Whitey Bulger’s real-life attorney J. W. Carney, Jr.
“But Jay came to the set a couple of times and watched and he was very - yeah, he gave me a lot of confidence because he said he could feel his old friend in what I was doing, which was a very high compliment,” he said.
Actor Joel Edgerton says that he felt at times like Whitey Bulger - and not Johnny Depp - was in front of him.
“I mean the transformation was pretty extraordinary,” he said. “And then you know the whole team of designers and make-up artists do that for him. And then he brought this sort of inner transformation according to the stuff that we’ve read about Whitey which was such a good balance to what was there on the outside.”
Johnson says even though she knew the story, she struggled to understand why Bulger did some of the things he did.
“I guess sometimes, yeah, you try to comprehend why he would make certain decisions, and you can’t really,” she said. “I think there are - in the script, in the story - there are moments when you think he is a very diabolical person.”
Black Mass also stars Kevin Bacon as Charles McGuire, the FBI’s top agent in Boston in the 1970s. Rory Cochrane plays Whitey’s partner Stephen “the Rifleman” Flemmi.
Bulger’s criminal career ended in 2011, when he was arrested after 16 years on the run and 12 years on the FBI’s Most Wanted List. He was eventually convicted of 31 of 32 counts, including racketeering, murder, money laundering, and extortion. The 86-year-old Bulger was sentenced to two life sentences.