This is a vicious, violent story that is less an engrossing tale than it is a character study of two guys from the old South Boston neighborhood who ended up on opposite sides of the law. Told in episodic form and narrated by three crooks-turned-snitches, it’s occasionally fascinating, incessantly bloody, sometimes painfully slow. If it weren’t all true, it would be far less entertaining. And it’s difficult to believe it’s possible to have more variations on the word “F***” than there are in this script. Johnny Depp is nearly unrecognizable as James “Whitey” Bulger, a small-time thief who became bolder, more successful — and far more “protected” — once he made a dirty deal to serve as an informant to an ambitious FBI agent, John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) who is out to rid north Boston of the Italian mob. This story has more than a passing similarity with director Scott Cooper’s last offering “Out of the Furnace.” Both are bloody tales of broken dreams where acting style trumps story depth, and where ultimately everything is about what it means to be loyal to your “family” — because when you grow up on the streets, family is really all you’ve got.
This is a movie of bad wigs, a big cast, some dark humor and Boston accents that sound real. Depp gives a chillingly-restrained performance as evil incarnate; Edgerton is equally effective as a man trapped in a bad deal who believed he could rely on loyalty and is running out of options and trust. But especially good here are the female roles. Juno Temple, as a young hooker, finds the right balance between uncertainty and youthful confidence; Julianne Nicholson as Connolly’s wife Marianne has the most memorable scene in the movie; she makes fear as palpable as it’s ever been portrayed. The ending is strengthened by typography telling us what happened to each of the main characters, including Bulger, who spent twelve years on the FBI’s Most Wanted List. At more than two hours, the run-time is too long; and with its episodic structure, the story sometimes sags; but ultimately the movie’s fundamental flaw is this: Cooper filled his screen and his story with an impressive list of characters, but he never gave us anyone to like.