Boston crime king Whitey Bulger rides again, onscreen at least, in Scott Cooper's ambitious and engaging Black Mass, where he's played by Johnny Depp, in a fake bald pate. The elaborate makeup job is a problem: Depp might have been better off just channeling Whitey from deep within — it's almost as if the radiation beams he's trying to send out can't penetrate all that latex. But Black Mass is a tightly wound piece of work, and Cooper (Crazy Heart, Out of the Furnace) keeps its many small parts moving with ease. He's skillful at merging telling, minute details with bigger, looping schemes. We see Whitey sitting down to play cards, circa the mid-Seventies, with his senior-citizen mom and working his treacherous wiles on one of his childhood pals, now grown up to be FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton, who plays his character as likable, believable, and just slightly pitiable).
Bulger's is a horrible and brutal story, and Black Mass never shrinks from it. Most of the violence occurs off-camera, but you wouldn't call the film tasteful: The sound of a young prostitute (Juno Temple) gasping for breath as Bulger squeezes the life out of her is harrowing. The cast is almost uniformly terrific. The now-playing-everywhere Dakota Johnson appears in a small role as the mother of Whitey's young son: There's a sweet but flinty pensiveness about her, particularly when she lashes out as her sometime partner lectures her about her manner of dealing with a tragedy that has shaken them both. (It's telling that of all the players in this vicious, sorry tale, only a woman has the nuts to stand up to this snake.)