A review of “Black Mass,” director Scott Cooper’s look at notorious Boston mobster James “Whitey” Bulger, played by Johnny Depp. Rating: 3 stars out of 4.

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Johnny Depp, as notorious Boston mobster James “Whitey” Bulger in Scott Cooper’s “Black Mass,” seems almost phosphorescent; he’s all forehead and unblinking eyes glowing in the film’s yellow light. There’s no trace of the actor here, transformed by a receding hairline (it’s as if even his skinned-back hair is afraid of him) and chilly blue contact lenses, and the result is uncanny. “You unduhstahnd?” he rasps, in slurry South Boston-ese, and there’s something not quite human in his monotone; it’s as if, long ago, this man’s emotions dissolved in the winter air.

Cooper’s long been a fine director of actors (his “Crazy Heart” brought Jeff Bridges an Oscar), and though “Black Mass” is Depp’s movie, it’s crammed full of strong performances. Watch how Benedict Cumberbatch, as Bulger’s good-boy brother Billy (a state senator), displays a wonderfully insincere politico’s smile, as if an assistant pasted it there; or how Dakota Johnson, in just a few scenes as Bulger’s ex-girlfriend, wordlessly tells an entire story of disappointment placed on a shelf.

“Black Mass” is an ambitious film, spanning several decades and numerous characters: Its primary focus is Bulger’s long, shady alliance with the FBI, crafted by an agent (Joel Edgerton) in the 1970s, and emergence from small-time hood to notorious crimelord. It’s always intriguing, or perhaps unsettling, but never quite seems to build to a peak. (What could have been, perhaps, its most electric moment is nearly thrown away at the end, as little more than a title-card afterthought.) It’s one of those movies that you don’t exactly enjoy (so many guns, so many deaths), but you appreciate for its craft and tension, and for its cast’s willingness to lose themselves in the darkness.

Movie Review ★★★  

‘Black Mass,’ with Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Rory Cochrane, Jesse Plemons, Kevin Bacon, W. Earl Brown, David Harbour, Dakota Johnson, Julianne Nicholson. Directed by Scott Cooper, from a screenplay by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth, based on the book by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill. 122 minutes. Rated R for brutal violence, language throughout, some sexual references and brief drug use. Rated 3 stars out of 4. Several theaters.