Johnny Depp has done terrible things, such as Mortdecai and The Lone Ranger, but I don’t think I’ve ever watched him in a movie about actual terrible things. It was educational, if nothing else. Depp is utterly convincing as Whitey Bulger, or at least so utterly awful that you can’t quite take your eyes off him. I didn’t know he could do horrible, and for a while I was sitting there feeling quietly impressed. The reviews have been very positive, since for the first time in ages Johnny Depp isn’t playing a fey man-child made out of whimsy. Finally, a great actor was giving a performance which showed what he was capable of; finally he was setting himself a challenge.
Well, maybe. Because in his own way, his Whitey Bulger is just as much of a cartoon as Cap’n Jack Sparrow. It slowly sank in that if Johnny Depp really wants to show some range, he needs to play an ordinary doofus, something which he hasn’t tried since Donnie Brasco. Which I never saw, though I did see Nick of Time, made the same year and probably the last time that Depp tried to play a role completely straight. It’s just been one long parade of weirdos ever since, and in some ways, Whitey is business as usual. All the feyness and whimsy has been replaced by pure ferocity, but bouncing from extreme to another is not quite the same thing as creating a real character.
And the ferocity is unrelenting. There is a moment in the middle of the movie where Bulger swings from apparent good humour to menace and back to apparent good humour, and Depp is scarily convincing as a man who is never NOT a complete asshole, even when he thinks he’s using humour to make his point. The problem is trying to relate that performance to anything which might work in the real world. Bulger is mean and scary, but he’s living in a world where people can have their lives snuffed out in an instant for almost no reason, and it’s hard to see how he got through twenty years without being murdered by someone who just couldn’t put up with his crap any more. He’s believable as someone who was feared, but he’s not believable as anyone’s friend. In the second act of the movie, he has a girlfriend, and a son. He loses them both, in different ways, and that’s supposed to be part of how Bulger becomes ever more dangerous, how the last of his humanity is stripped away. Instead I found myself struggling to understand how he had a girlfriend.
What’s missing from the performance is any sense of charm. For Depp, suppressing his charm must have required superhuman effort; as an actor, and from what I can see even as a person, he’s ridiculously charming no matter what he’s doing. And Bulger was an objectively terrible person; for a man like Depp, it must have seemed almost wrong to make such a monster charming, to give such a monster any part of Depp which was genuinely Depp himself. But Bulger in real life must have been charming even if only on the surface. You can’t survive on fear alone in a world like that. You gotta have friends, even if it’s only so that you can take them by surprise. So that curiously one note performance is impressive, but fundamentally wrong. After a while I wanted to see what Daniel Day Lewis would have done with it.
Other thoughts; well, man, thank goodness we don’t live in the 80s any more. The hair. The suits. The hair. And the sunglasses. The dentistry. There’s a squicky moment when Bulger chokes out a rat, and then tells his henchmen to knock his teeth out, presumably to prevent the body from being identified. And I said to John “Has he even looked at anyone’s teeth in this movie? None of them HAVE dental records to check."
And talking about rats … You could, quite literally, kill yourself if you took a shot every time someone tells you that they’re not a rat or that they hate rats, or that rats deserved to be killed, or that they’re going to have to kill someone in case they rat out. Honour is apparently everything to all of these guys, every last one of whom is ratting on someone before the movie is over, if they haven’t already started ratting before the movie even started. I guess it’s that old story that the thing which annoys us most is other people with our own faults.
It’s a well made movie, with a pretty good script, and solid performances built around Depp’s weird one note smoulder, but it’s two hours spent in the company of awful people getting deeper and deeper into the muck. Afterwards I was reading IMDB and kept seeing that they cut whole scenes, plots and characters - an hour or more of material - for “pacing”. It’s not pacing. It’s the simple human truth that you can only spend so much time hearing horrible people tell a joke before you need to go and get a drink.