It's probably a little difficult nowadays to run into someone who would think that Johnny Depp could be back in form, especially after years of box office fizzles and flops. Now, that idea doesn't sound so crazy. This gangster thriller showcases Depp's diverse talent as well as showing a dark yet human picture of mobster James "Whitey" Bulger. And even though it may not reach the heights some hoped it might, it still brings a heck of a punch.
The interesting and somewhat refreshing part of this film is that it's not strictly a biopic nor an origin story. It starts off in the 1970s, Bulger already being a massive power in the streets of South Boston. It takes us through the years of his dealings with rival figureheads and gangs, not to mention crooked cops. But Bulger isn't always the key player in this crime story. John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), an FBI agent, becomes involved with Bulger by allowing him to become an informant to help take down other public enemies of the area. It shows how this true story unfolded from both sides. Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch), Whitey's brother, is on the opposite side of the spectrum from his violent sibling. He's a prominent politician, trying his best to handle what his brother stands for in the city. And as those two worlds collide, quite a flame sparks up.
One of the things that this film does right is the constant presence of Whitey on screen. And that's mainly because of Depp's incredible performance. He finds every nuance, every inflection, every glare that always makes Whitey the most terrifying character on screen. On the other side, Edgerton's performance is more subtle and casual, creating an interesting balance between the two leads. But while the performances are good across the board, there's just something lacking within the narrative. Director Scott Cooper, known for "Out of the Furnace" and "Crazy Heart," is skilled at getting the best from the cast, just not always from the story itself. The pacing comes and goes with this one. The first act felt incredibly well-paced and defined, it was just when the second act came around when there were moderate lags that often became a little tiresome.
Cooper seems as though he wants to be a little like Scorsese by telling intimately dark stories of criminals, capturing their psychology and human nature even with their many heinous acts. But Cooper sometimes lacks making them feel fresh and compelling. But luckily, the narrative heft of this one makes up for it. As we follow Whitey through many years of his life, we get to go deeper into is mind, which are often places we would rather not visit. And Whitey's frequent dealings with Connolly are always fascinating in how they play out. Connolly jumps from good to bad, helpful to reckless, and just never seems to find the right ground to stand on.
It's grim, it's tragic, it's human. And while this film isn't a groundbreaking gangster drama, it often gets pretty darn close. It feels genuine enough to set itself apart from other films of the genre that have popped up over the past few years, especially with the mesmerizing Depp leading the bloody parade. It should entertain as well as frighten, probably giving more nightmares than tears.