|Johnny Depp as James “Whitey” Bulger, in Black Mass.|
As James “Whitey” Bulger in Black Mass, Johnny Depp levels a cobra’s hooded gaze at his enemies and at those he suspects might become his enemies. That isn’t much of a distinction, and it doesn’t take much to cross it. Depp gives a thoughtful, intelligent performance as a charismatic sociopath, and in some scenes he’s very frightening. But he needs more colors, and I don’t think that’s his fault but the fault of the screenplay, which Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth culled from Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill’s book Whitey: The Life of America’s Most Notorious Mob Boss. I haven’t read the source material, but Depp is obviously faithful to the Bulger you saw in the news every day during his 2013 trial and who emerges in last year’s riveting documentary Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger. The prosthetics have transformed Depp’s face so that he looks eerily like Bulger, but this kind of real-person camouflage, impressive as it is, always misses the point. (God knows it did when Steve Carell was buried under his make-up in Foxcatcher: the combination of Carell’s vocal tics and that artificial face, constructed to replicate that of a true-life lunatic most people couldn’t identify anyway, made him look and sound like an automaton.) Black Mass, which was directed by Scott Cooper, is a prestige project, carefully assembled and made with obvious integrity. But it would be a more satisfying movie if Depp were slyer, more ironic – if he loosened up and had more fun with the part. You don’t want Jack Nicholson’s Bulger-inspired turn in The Departed, whose behavior was so clownish and preposterous that you couldn’t believe his gang didn’t just stage an insurrection and take him out, but you do need to get more of a sense of the character’s charm and of an outrageousness that isn’t just linked to a pathological taste for violence.